It’s one of the most promising areas of science to have emerged in recent years, and it could change the way we understand living organisms. But scientists will only be able to exploit the full potential of systems biology if they are willing to work together, a new report from the European Science Foundation warns.
The report calls for a more coordinated approach, with cooperation between different research groups from many different disciplines, under a unified ‘European road map’ established by experts in the field.
In the past, scientists had focused on very specific molecules and their roles within cells. Systems biology, however, is changing this approach by considering every cell as a system of many different components, and studying the many ways they interact together.
It is hoped that one day scientists could recreate all the workings of a cell in a computer, allowing virtual experiments to take the place of real ones. This could be used in medicine, to find drugs and to study how tumours grow and develop. It could even be used to create a new life form completely from scratch.
To do this, scientists would need to develop advanced mathematics, and integrate many different disciplines outside of biology, engineering, chemistry, physics and computer science.
According to one of the reports authors, Dr John Marks, the chief executive of the ESF, this will only be possible if we ‘develop a well-coordinated effort, bringing together the many different research activities in Europe, and complement this with joint development of basic technologies, reference labs and training a new generation of researchers’.
The report also suggests the necessary steps to achieve this. Firstly, a task force of scientists, industry experts, funding agencies and EC officials need to set a framework for future action. A consortium of laboratories needs to be created that combine all the scientific disciplines and expertise necessary for systems biology. It also needs greater public awareness, with education programmes specifically targeting this.