When reductionism is not enough

June 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

Allon Klein pointed me to this fascinating opinion piece from 1972 by Philip Anderson, the Nobel prize winning condensed matter physicist.  (Anderson, PW. 1972.  More is Different. Science 177 393-396).

Anderson argues that it is not possible even in physics, much less in biology, to understand the behavior of complex systems simply by building up from the principles learned by studying the behavior of the component parts. In other words, while reductionism is important and powerful, the fact that you can be a successful reductionist does not imply that you can be a successful constructionist: “The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe”.

Perhaps this anecdote gives a sense of what drove him to write the article:

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First known definition of systems biology?

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Eliot Meyerowitz recently sent Marc Kirschner a copy of an editorial by James Bonner in the American Institute of Biological Sciences bulletin from October 1960 — that’s right, almost 50 years ago — that comprises both a definition of systems biology and a plea for its creation.  Teaser quote:

” We have seen enough to convince me that there is one great class of biological problems which, if followed to its ultimate lair, turns out to be biochemistry…. It appears to me that beyond this stratum of molecular biology, or above it, as some of my friends would say, is a second stratum; a stratum which contains problems of strategy, of programming, of how to use the various and ingenious molecular devices invented by creatures to make a creature or a society. To this class of problems I give the name “systems biology.””

I’m sorry, but this is behind a particularly egregious paywall: $14 for a single page!  We have a framed copy on the wall in the Department; if your institution doesn’t happen to subscribe to the AIBS bulletin, I recommend taking the time to read it when you next stop by.

Oh, and if you can find an earlier definition of systems biology please send it along!

From data to understanding

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Angela DePace pointed out this excellent recent article by Arthur Lander on how and why models are useful in biology (Lander, A. (2010) The edges of understanding.  BMC Biol. 8 40).  Here’s a teaser:

“In molecular biology, explaining the existence of a phenotype or disease by ‘finding the gene(s) for it’ is a plausible goal; in systems biology it is just a starting point for investigation. Curiously, this distinction is often misconstrued. Among scientists, as well as the public, systems biology is frequently identified with the exploitation of high-throughput methods to gather vast amounts of data about genomes, epigenomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, metabolomes, phenomes, and the like. Sophisticated as such methodologies have become, they primarily support the tasks that molecular biologists have always faced – discovering nodes and edges. If this were all there was to systems biology, it would be hard to justify treating it as anything more than an accelerated program of molecular biology.

But there is certainly more.”

Now read on…

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