Back to the Future
Alongside the genome, scientists now talk of the proteome (proteins), transcriptome (mRNA) and even the metabolome (metabolic pathways). These individual fields are gradually coming together (along with bioinformatics and other computer based technologies) under a single umbrella called “systems biology”.
The idea behind the phenomenon of systems biology is that you must study of all the parts of the organisms from the molecular and cellular level through to the highest level together in a complete way to understand the complex multi-level interactions that govern what we call life. The theory underpinning systems biology is the old adage that the whole equals more than the sum of the parts.
A key element is the idea that the component parts, when combined together, have what are called “emergent properties”. The Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, uses the (non-eco) light bulb to explain this. When the parts of such a light bulb are taken individually (tungsten wire, metal cap and glass bulb) they don’t give a clue that together they produce the emergent property of light! Complex systems (like life) have even less predictable emergent properties so it is necessary to study the whole, as well as the parts, for a full understanding.
Systems biology is a paradigm shift in our approach to biology away from the reductionist extremism of molecular biology. It sounds like an interesting approach and one that offers great hope for the future. It is also refreshing to see such a return to a more traditional whole organism approach to biology. Maybe macro and micro meet at last!