I've been mean to computational/network/systems biologists recently (twice). Real soon here I'm going to get into some positive aspects of these fields, but before that, I have to slam systems biology one more time.

Guess which blurb was written within the last 5 years, and which one was written more than 30 years ago:

XXX is a newly emerging field that promises to be of considerable importance in the coming years. Its focus is the integrated functioning of the intact system, rather than the chemical and physical properties of the isolated molecular components that comprise the system. Although there always has been a great deal of interest in the problems of integration and organization in biology, it is only in recent years that the underlying biochemical basis for such complex biological phenomena was revealed. Within a few decades essentially all of the basic mechanisms and most of the individual enzymes that comprise a living cell such as the bacterium Escherichia coli have been defined... Completion of the molecular inventory of the cell is in view, but still we have no real understanding of the problems of integration and organization that were the original stimuli for much of the biochemical work in the past 25 years. From this perspective the time is right for the development of a more synthetic approach to these biological problems. As a result of the molecular revolution a complementary approach has become necessary if we are to understand the more complex phenomena typical of higher levels of organization.


For a long time biologists have thoroughly investigated how parts of the cell work: they have studied the biochemistry of small and large molecules, the structure of proteins, the structure of DNA and RNA, and the principles of DNA replication as well as transcription and translation and the structure and function of membranes. In addition, theoretical concepts about the interaction of elements in different types of networks have been developed. The next step in this line of research is further effort towards a systematic investigation of cells, organs, and organisms and of (mainly) cellular processes such as cellular communication, cell division, homeostasis, and adaptation...

Now the time has come to integrate different fields of biology and natural science in order to better understand how cells work, how cellular processes are regulated, and how cells react to environmental perturbations or even anticipate those changes. The development of a more systematic view of biological processes is accompanied by and based on a revolution of experimental techniques and methodologies.

Whenever I read a book about or a review of systems biology, I always get the feeling that we're still struggling to get beyond square 1. We're saying the same things now that we were saying 30 years ago: the time is ripe, we need a systems-level understanding, it will revolutionize biology. And yet there is still so little consensus about how to do it.

This time around, I think systems biology has a better chance. Our computers are better, we have huge databases, and our experimental technologies are well ahead of where they were in the 1970's. Still, very little has been settled, which means there is still an opportunity to do something really interesting in this field.

The first quote is from back cover of Biochemical Systems Analysis, by Michael Savageau, 1976, back when biochemists were the main people trying to crack systems biology. The second quote is from page 3 of Systems Biology in Practice, by Klipp, Herwig, Kowald, Wierling, and Lehrach, published in 2005, whith computer scientists and physicists at the helm this time around.

I'm still rooting for the biochemists.

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