Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Systematic Future Of Biology.

My field of interest is systems biology. What the hell is systems biology? Glad you asked.

Owing to its Linnean roots, biology was largely a descriptive science focused on the task of classification and characterization. The recent revolution in biology is towards pure quantitation and measurement. The quantitative understanding of how DNA, RNA, proteins and other biomolecules act in concert to sustain life on the cellular level has revolutionized the way we think about microbial systems. Having actual numbers in hand, scientists are now generating mathematical and computational models which they believe may allow the prediction of cellular behavior. Whoa. Let's think about that -- biology, which was once a field dedicated to classification may suddenly become predictive. Given an environmental perturbation, we can predict how a cell will respond.

For example, why is it that Salmonella is so dangerous? Turns out Salmonella senses its external environment and can rapidly adapt to survive in its new surroundings. When we take antibiotics to fight salmonella, those antibiotics bind to this bacteria's flagellae (effectively the tails it uses to swim with). Once salmonella senses that its flagellae has been disabled by the antibiotic, it then grows a new set of tails that don't interact with the antibiotic! Imagine this -- if we can predict how Salmonella would respond to a drug, we can develop a better means to fight it. We're a long ways away from being able to do so, but we're getting there.

Should systems biology pan out, the benefits of such research would be enormous. Read about systems biology here.


Blogger mindful said...

Remember the revolution in consumer products the happened when chemistry finally became a predictive science? We started getting all sorts of wonderful things like plastics, better detergents, etc. Now the same thing is going to happen with biology. For those who wonder about the utility of government-funded basic scientific research, this is it.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

The only thing I'm worried about is all the hype in this field. Recall that physical chemistry, for example, had its alkali age when rigorous science was the standard. Hopefully systems will go the direction chemistry did. You're right, then we're talking serious results.

3:31 AM  

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