Based on a new school of thinking, the field of biology is undergoing a transformation at UCSB with the addition of the Systems Biology Program.
UCSB is one of many universities now encouraging the study of systems biology. Headed by chemical engineering professor Frank Doyle, the on-campus Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies is the result of a joint UCSB, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Army’s study of the field and its practical applications. Former chemical engineering professor Duncan Mellichamp donated $2 million to establish four endowed chairs to supervise and conduct research in systems biology.
Doyle said systems biology focuses on studying the subject as a whole, rather than reducing it to its parts.
“One commonly used analogy is that looking at a parts list for a 747 will tell you nothing about the human genome, just like reading a list of all human genes will not lead to profound conclusions about cancer,” he said.
Typically, scientists would attempt to simplify a biological problem – a weak heart rate, for example – as the result of a single body failure.
However in systems biology, researchers analyze such phenomenon by studying the whole system rather than focusing on just one aspect, as scientists have traditionally done. Thus, rather than viewing a weak heart as the result of a lone malfunction, systems biology examines the broader chemical picture.
“The old … approach was to identify a single causative agent [such as a particular protein or gene,] while the systems approach recognizes that it is really a hierarchy of responses, and one must address the network of interactions,” said Doyle.
Doyle said systems biology moves away from traditional methods.
“The key idea for systems biology is that the systems viewpoint is very different from old school reductionist thinking,” he said.
Reductionism is used to explained complex theories, facts or entities by simplifying them down to their less complicated parts.
The Doyle Group’s research concentrates on bringing systems engineering tools to the field of biology. By using the traditional methods of engineers – such as model identification – researchers analyze hierarchical and intricate biological systems.
Given the multi-disciplinary nature of systems biology, Doyle said he believes UCSB is in a prime position for such studies.
“We are able to cross departments and colleges with ease and no barriers to collaboration,” Doyle said. “That makes UCSB unique in conducting systems biology research.”
The long-term goals of systems biology are still the same as traditional biological and medical research. Researchers hope to develop better treatments and diagnoses for genetic and infectious disease.
However, according to Doyle, the novel approach of systems biology aims to change research from reductionist science to analysis on a larger, interdisciplinary scale, in order to advance science in medicine, biology and evolutionary theory.
Even in its beginning stages, professor Doyle said systems biology is already making an impact in the scientific world.
“The field is rewriting the textbooks,” Doyle said.