Today, I had the pleasure of meeting prof. Marc Kirschner. He is the chairman of the department for Systems Biology at the Harvard Medical School. It’s a visionary place with about 200 scientists, small by American standards but far larger than my current department.
Kirschner is one of the world’s foremost cell biologists, and one of the first to thoroughly explore the information-processing capabilities of the cell. In his 1997 book Cells, Embryos and Evolution (written together with J.C. Gerhart), he discusses, for example, the capability of the cell to be used as a computing machine, in principle.
I read up a bit before meeting him, and came across an article he wrote for Cell in 2005 titled “The Meaning of Systems Biology”. Here he endeavours to explain what this new field is about, really. And he is the right person to do it, since he is more or less one of the founding fathers of the field.
Rarely have I seen such an established scientist move with such caution in his own field. He describes systems biology as a scientific branch in the making, and argues that only in retrospect will we know exactly what has come of this fruitful entanglement of genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, physiology, and evolutionary theory, all coupled with new high-throughput techniques.
Systems biology is not all about an increased data-generating capacity. It is, in Kirschner’s opinion, also about “a smaller scale view, totally compatible with and partially dependent on the global analysis of high-throughput biology. This view spans in vitro biochemistry to what is now called synthetic biology and it has as its goal the reconstruction and description of partial but complex systems.”
In the end, Kirschner only very reluctantly offers a rather long definition, which he says must remain tentative. At its core, I think it means that systems biology is the study of biological complexity through modelling of the underlying mechanisms, quantitative measurement, and theory.
So how did our meeting go? Well, I pitched a project idea that I’d given a lot of thought, and that is in my own opinion extremely elegant, well-conceived and likely to change the way we see the world. One’s ideas become like babies sometimes if you allow them to.
He thought there might be something in it, and suggested I should talk to the person in his department who has got the methods I would require – incidentally, the only person in the world who does. I certainly will. And then we’ll see where this ends!