Systems biology and reductionism

A brilliant set of two articles in PLOS biology talk about the merits and demerits of systems biology and reductionism.

The Limits of Reductionism: Could systems biology offer an alternative

The clinical applications of the systems approach

My commentary ( in progress):

As a trained reductionist , one thought that occupies my mind more than any these days is the role of the reductionist perspective in today's world of scientific research. Having been out of graduate school for almost 3 years I can most securely claim myself to belong to the old school of scientific research. I did go through all of graduate school without ever having done a screen ( the only people who did screens were people in the genetics department), for me a chip was made only of silicon or potato, and an array was simply a sequence of information in a computer program. Thus I am anything but a systems scientist.

This set of two articles in PLOS biology make a very good case for systems science. The first article talks about how the reductionist approach is deeply ingrained in the way medicine is practiced ( and life science research). Explaining reductionism as understanding the forest by studying the trees. The commentary makes a good case for how this is not the best approach since almost all disease states are complex and involve many interacting components. Importantly it remarks on how the three basic tenets of systems biology i.e space , time and context are very important for a complete understanding of anything. The authors also rightfully point out that there is no one science that can adequately address this approach and insists that a systems perspective can only come by a confluence of mathematics , statistics, chemistry , computational science, physics and engineering. The second article is a lot more pointed and I believe is a must read for all clinicians.

I would really recommend reading these reviews for anyone practicing systems biology , high-throughput screening , diagnostics or just plain old reductionist molecular life science research. These commentaries would especially benefit any medical practitioner because they, just like all the thousands of trained reductionists out there need to get on their intellectual treadmills and start training to prepare to adapt to the changing world of systems biology based medicine and therapy.

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2 responses to “Systems biology and reductionism

  1. Pingback: Is it enough to study individual molecules? at business|bytes|genes|molecules

  2. I’d actually argue that physicians are better suited for understanding systems biology than us reductionists. Managing blood pressure, for example, requires multiple drugs because of the various feedback mechanisms relating vascular tone, heart rate, volume depletion/expansion, and Na/K balance. Thanks for pointing me to these papers – I’ll read them with great interest.

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