UC Irvine is a hot spot for systems biology, a new approach to learning why the human body and other organisms work the way they do. Dr. Arthur Lander, director of the Center for Complex Biological Systems, will talk about this exciting new field at a public lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28, at the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. Below, he explains what systems biology is and how it benefits the public.
Q: What is systems biology?
A: Systems biology is an approach to studying and understanding life that is gaining momentum around the world. Whereas conventional biology focuses heavily on discovering the components from which life is built – genes, proteins, cells, tissues, etc. – systems biology looks at higher-level, complex systems created by the networking of these components. According to systems biologists, most biological networks were shaped by millennia of natural selection to get specific tasks done efficiently and reliably. Because of this, they should have much in common with the kinds of systems that engineers create. One of the big goals of systems biology is to find engineering “design principles” that explain why biological systems are built the way they are. There have been some exciting successes along these lines.
Q: Why is this field so innovative and exciting?
A: Systems biology draws from an amazing array of disciplines – mathematics, engineering, physics, computer science, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, ecology and medicine – to create interdisciplinary synthesis on a scale unheard of in modern science. The goal is not just new technologies, diagnoses and treatments, but a reformulation of what it means to understand life itself. Systems biology also is changing the practice of medicine by explaining how person-to-person variability in genes and environment affects how the body’s systems respond to change. Finally, because research on complex, dynamic systems is technically challenging, systems biology also is helping to drive developments in mathematics and computation that will have an impact in many fields.
Q: What is unique about the Center for Complex Biological Systems?
A: UCI has strength in component disciplines from which systems biology draws and a culture that fosters and rewards interdisciplinary collaboration. The center started in 2001 as an informal association of biologists, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists interested in working together. We’ve gone on to obtain multiple collaborative grant awards and to start an interdisciplinary doctoral program. Last year, the National Institutes of Health recognized us as a national center for systems biology.
Q: What do its scientists study?
A: Although we work on many problems in systems biology, we are known especially for our studies on the frontier of systems biology called “spatial dynamics.” This refers to the fact that components of cells and tissues change over time and have locations that matter greatly to their function. For an organ like the heart or kidney or brain to do its job, it’s not enough to have cells that do the right kinds of things, those cells must be in just the right places. Some of the most interesting spatial dynamics problems arise during embryonic and fetal development, when tissues and patterns constantly change. Many of our scientists focus on problems of development, regeneration and tissue patterning, areas in which UCI has long been a world leader. We also work closely with centers such as the Beckman Laser Institute and the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics to create technology for monitoring spatially dynamic processes inside living cells.
Q: How might this research benefit the public?
A: Many of the ways biology affects the public have to do with control. As scientists we wish to control the spread of contagion, symptoms of illnesses, the progression of cancer, scarring after injury and the impact of genetically modified species on the environment. Life has solved control problems for hundreds of millions of years to allow survival in hostile environments, allocate resources efficiently, reproduce successfully and construct reliable bodies with astonishing accuracy. By identifying and adapting the control strategies already used by living things, we can be far more sophisticated in how we manipulate the living world. The problem of regenerating body parts is a great example. It’s not just about knowing how to get cells of one type to turn into another, it’s about the strategies needed to balance numbers, locations and production rates of many types of cells. To re-engineer biology, we must understand how it is engineered in the first place.