Synergies of Integration and Interaction

In the beginning, there were biology, chemistry, and physics. The basic sciences helped answer questions about humans and the world around them for centuries. Then, the discovery of the structure of DNA more than 50 years ago pushed science into the realm of molecular genetics, while the sequencing of the human genome in the past decade opened the door to a slate of “-omics” sciences: proteomics, metabolomics, and transcriptomics. Researchers worked with increasingly smaller bits of nature, hoping to unlock larger secrets about plant and human health, disease, and physical traits.

Out of a fear that science was losing the forest for the trees, a new movement has sprung up in recent years to reintegrate the “-omics” sciences into a more holistic approach so researchers can get a better picture of living organisms and how they operate. The effort, known as systems biology, studies the interactions of molecular and cellular components, using experiments and mathematical models to determine how they impact an overall organism and its function. The field is so new and is evolving so quickly that few people can agree on exactly what “systems biology” means.

“It’s not a science; it’s a process.”

Dr. John Cavanagh, a biochemistry professor who has proposed a Center for Systems Biology at NC State, compares it to an automobile. Scientists have been doing the equivalent of studying the exhaust system or the drive train or the engine by themselves. A systems approach would consolidate the efforts so they could see how changes in one area affect the others as they try to optimize overall performance. “It’s not a science; it’s a process of looking at the sum of the parts,” Cavanagh says. “We use all of our tools and arrange the modules as needed to examine a problem.”

The interdisciplinary, applied nature of systems biology fits well with NC State’s strengths, Vice Chancellor of Research and Graduate Studies John Gilligan says. With a solid reputation in life sciences and engineering—looking at a system instead of individual parts is an established practice in engineering—and decades of experience in solving real-world problems, the University is well positioned to become an early leader in the field, Gilligan says. “Systems biology is very engineering-oriented, and because people from different disciplines are working together, it offers a bigger view of the world than single-investigator projects.”

This issue of RESULTS showcases the projects of several systems biology teams at NC State, as well as individual scientists working with government laboratories and other universities.