Research Units for Systems Biology
In general, the term ‘systems biology’ describes the study of biological systems at a so called systems level (Kitano, 2007). Although this approach is not an entirely new concept in life sciences, e.g. many approaches in physiology, enzymology, and other disciplines have already taken a systemic view of biological subject, systems biology has regained strong interest within the past years. A major reason for this development is that the opportunities and research tools for scientists have tremendously emerged to a novel by far more powerful level than ever.
Interestingly, the systems biology community still hasn’t agreed on a distinct and generally accepted definition of the term systems biology. Some scientists consider systems biology to be a field of study on the interaction between the components of a biological system and how these components generate form and function of that particular system, organ or entire organism. Others think of systems biology as a novel paradigm in life sciences, which strives to put things together rather than tearing them apart (Noble, 2006). In other words, systems biology represents the integration of data and facts rather than a process of simplifying and reducing them to a minimal consensus model. However, there are even more opinions on how systems biological should be referred to. Some people refer to systems biology simply as a number of operational protocols used to carry out life science research. Some just define it as an application of systems theory to molecular biology, and others consider it to represent a socioscientific phenomenon focusing on the integration of selected interaction data of components of biological systems with the help of interdisciplinary tools and personnel.
Despite the controversy on a unique definition of systems biology, it is undoubtful that systems biology has merely become possible by the tremendous technical progress in developing life science research tools, experimental techniques, and computer hard- and software within the late eighties and nineties of the last century. In other words, it has been the progress in molecular biology, genomics, computer science, latest control theory, non-linear dynamics theory, and in many other fields that gave birth to modern systems biology research. In this sense, most scientist would probably agree that systems biology contains an ‘omics’ aspect (transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, glycomics, interactomics, fluxomics, and biomics) and powerful mathematical modeling (Di Ventura et al., 2006).
Modern systems biology started its procession during the late nineties in the U.S. and in Japan (Westerhoff, 2008). Thus, the first major systems biology consortiums have been initiated in these countries. In 2005, the World Technology Evaluation Center Panel stated that the U.S. is “currently ahead of the rest of the world in systems biology, largely because of earlier investment over the past five to seven years by funding organizations and research institutions” (WTEC Panel Report, 2005).
To be at the international forefront of systems biology research, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) initiated a program in systems biology, which was to fund medium- to long-term research programs in 2001. An utmost concern of this program was to exploit existing and self-evident synergies to the existing BMBF-funded initiatives in genomics and proteomics. In 2004 German systems biology took the first hurdle with the start of HepatoSys, an initiative with the goal of understanding the mechanisms of behavior of hepatocytes. In the following year, the UK BBSRC and EPSRC funded systems biology research centers and cognate doctoral training centers. In the meantime, the BMBF has started a transnational research program on microbial systems biology, called SysMO – Systems Biology of Microorganisms (2006-2009), together with the Netherlands, the UK, Austria, Norway, and Spain. Today many research initiatives for systems biology have been successfully established.
Coming back to the current situation in Germany, the BMBF presently runs an impressively high number of successful systems biology initiatives, e.g. FORSYS – Research Units for Systems Biology (2007-2011), FORSYS Partner (2008-2010), QuantPro – Quantitative Analysis for the Description of Dynamic Processes in Living Systems (2006-2009), and ERASysBio and will start others soon, e.g. MedSys – Medical Systems Biology (2008-2011), GerontoSys – Systems Biology of Aging (2009-2013), and New Methods of Systems Biology (2009-2012). Moreover, further teaching and doctoral training programs were already announced, e.g. ERASysBioPlus (2009-2012).
Di Ventura B, Lemerle C, Michalodimitrakis K & Serrano (2006). From in vivo to in silico biology and back. Nature. 443: 527-533.
Kitano H (2007). Scientific Challenges in Systems Biology. In: Introduction to Systems Biology, ed. Sangdun Choi. Berlin Springer, Humana Press. ISBN978-1-58829-706-8.
Noble D (2006). The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199295739, p 21
Westerhoff HV (2008). Systems Biology is Working. In: Systems Biology: Results, Progress and Innovations from BMBF Funding. Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH
WTEC Panel Report (2005). World Technology Evaluation Centre, Inc.. 2809 Boston Street, Suite 441, Baltimore, MA 21224, U.S.A