Monday, November 13, 2006

Systems Biology

Like thousands of other fellow human beings, we biologists also follow the crowd. So right now, it is a fashion to be a Systems Biologist. It seems every one is talking about it and if your student does not have a credit in this subject, he/she will lag behind in the race. So, I am also introducing a systems biology course in the coming semester. Yes, I do have some personal greed too. First of all, it will be another point in my CV, which is a bit static right now: “developed a systems biology course” and secondly, I am really interested in this topic.

However, these are not the topic of this blog. Rather, I want to talk about my frustrations. I am growing frustrated with all that’s happening in the name of systems biology. It is supposed to change the philosophical status of biologists and provide us the vital clues about this ever elusive subject called “Life”. However, what’s happening right now is nothing but an over crowded maddening marathon to generate exponential amount of data and to fit those numbers in models. And obviously to get a publication, with a title: “Systems approach…..”

I think the problem (at least the problem that I feel) has two parts.

I have always observed that biologists are very much oblivion about the history of the science itself. We all know that every process in a living system (including the system itself) is history dependent. But we really do not care about the history of biology. We rarely stress that in classes and rarely discuss them with our friends. And that’s why it seems systems biology is something new. But the plain truth is that the current avatar of systems biology is nothing but an old wine in a new bottle. Complexity, emergent properties and modularity of biological systems - these three are the main pillar of systems biology. However, these three properties have been explored by so many people in so many ingenious ways for last hundred years. But we just never paid attention and rarely learned anything from them. So, we are just root-less misguided son of some rich parents. Any way, it is better to keep hope. And there is some light to show us way too. If you really feel that you are a Systems Biologist, please read this article on history of Systems Biology (Plant Cell.2006; 18: 2420-2430).

The second reason of my pain is that we are really not focusing on these three pillars of systems biology. Rather, we are busier in high-through put experiments and data crunching. Data (aka observation) is essential. But information with out a solid philosophy is worthless. If you try to dig into the literature on complexity and emergent properties of biological systems, you will find only a handful of recent articles. However, you will find so many mentions of these two terms in recent systems biology articles. So do we have solved the meaning of these two words? The answer is a big no. Even then we love to use them and leave the brain storming work, on mathematician, and physicists. This is nothing but a philosophical ignorance of our community. I do not discriminate or divide science, in field and sub-fields. However, people who call themselves biologists are not trying to explore the basic principles of life. Rather they are still busy, only, in cataloguing forms of life at different levels with different tools.