Systems Biology is a term used to describe a number of trends in bioscience research, and a movement which draws on those trends. Proponents describe systems biology as a biology-based inter-disciplinary study field that focuses on complex interactions in biological systems, claiming that it uses a new perspective (holism instead of reduction). Particularly from year 2000 onwards, the term is used widely in the biosciences, and in a variety of contexts. An often stated ambition of systems biology is the modeling and discovery of emergent properties, properties of a system whose theoretical description is only possible using techniques which fall under the remit of systems biology.
Systems biology can be considered from a number of different aspects:
- As a field of study, particularly, the study of the interactions between the components of biological systems, and how these interactions give rise to the function and behavior of that system (for example, the enzymes and metabolites in a metabolic pathway).
- As a paradigm, usually defined in antithesis to the so-called reductionist paradigm (biological organisation), although fully consistent with the scientific method. The distinction between the two paradigms is referred to in these quotations:
- “The reductionist approach has successfully identified most of the components and many of the interactions but, unfortunately, offers no convincing concepts or methods to understand how system properties emerge…the pluralism of causes and effects in biological networks is better addressed by observing, through quantitative measures, multiple components simultaneously and by rigorous data integration with mathematical models” Science
- “Systems biology…is about putting together rather than taking apart, integration rather than reduction. It requires that we develop ways of thinking about integration that are as rigorous as our reductionist programmes, but different….It means changing our philosophy, in the full sense of the term” Denis Noble
- As a series of operational protocols used for performing research, namely a cycle composed of theory, analytic or computational modelling to propose specific testable hypotheses about a biological system, experimental validation, and then using the newly acquired quantitative description of cells or cell processes to refine the computational model or theory. Since the objective is a model of the interactions in a system, the experimental techniques that most suit systems biology are those that are system-wide and attempt to be as complete as possible. Therefore, transcriptomics, metabolomics, proteomics and high-throughput techniques are used to collect quantitative data for the construction and validation of models.
- As a socioscientific phenomenon defined by the strategy of pursuing integration of complex data about the interactions in biological systems from diverse experimental sources using interdisciplinary tools and personnel.
This variety of viewpoints is illustrative of the fact that systems biology refers to a cluster of peripherally overlapping concepts rather than a single well-delineated field. However the term has widespread currency and popularity as of 2007, with chairs and institutes of systems biology proliferating worldwide.