Holistic biology: Back on stage? Comments on post-genomics in historical perspective

Philosophia Naturalis 39 (1):25-44 (2002)
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A strong motivation for the human genome project was to relate biological features to the structure and function of small sets of genes, and ideally to individual genes. However, it is now increasingly realized that many problems require a "systems" approach emphasizing the interplay of large numbers of genes, and the involvement of complex networks of gene regulation. This implies a new emphasis on integrative, systems theoretical approaches. It may be called 'holistic' if the term is used without irrational overtones, in the general sense of directing attention to integrated features of organs and organisms. In the history of biology, seemingly conflicting reductionist and holistic notions have alternated, with bottom-up as well as top-down approaches eventually contributing to the solutions of basic problems. By now, there is no doubt that biological features and phenomena are rooted in physico-chemical processes of the molecules involved; and yet, integrated systems aspects are becoming more and more relevant in developmental biology, brain and behavioural science, and socio-biology. -/- .

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Alfred Gierer
Max-Planck-Institute of Developmental Biology, Tuebingen, Germany


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