Complex Systems Biology

In Vincenzo Fano, Enrico Giannetto, Giulia Giannini & Pierluigi Graziani (eds.), Complessità e Riduzionismo. pp. 100-107 (2012)
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The term “Complex Systems Biology” was introduced a few years ago [Kaneko, 2006] and, although not yet of widespread use, it seems particularly well suited to indicate an approach to biology which is well rooted in complex systems science. Although broad generalizations are always dangerous, it is safe to state that mainstream biology has been largely dominated by a gene-centric view in the last decades, due to the success of molecular biology. So the one gene - one trait approch, which has often proved to be effective, has been extended to cover even complex traits. This simplifying view has been appropriately criticized, and the movement called systems biology has taken off. Systems biology [Noble, 2006] emphasizes the presence of several feedback loops in biological systems, which severely limit the range of validity of explanations based upon linear causal chains (e.g. gene → behaviour). Mathematical modelling is one the favourite tools of systems biologists to analyze the possible effects of competing negative and positive feedback loops which can be observed at several levels (from molecules to organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, ecosystems). Systems biology is by now a well-established field, as it can be inferred by the rapid growth in number of conferences and journals devoted to it, as well as by the existence of several grants and funded projects.Systems biology is mainly focused upon the description of specific biological items, like for example specific organisms, or specific organs in a class of animals, or specific genetic-metabolic circuits. It therefore leaves open the issue of the search for general principles of biological organization, which apply to all living beings or to at least to broad classes. We know indeed that there are some principles of this kind, biological evolution being the most famous one. The theory of cellular organization also qualifies as a general principle. But the main focus of biological research has been that of studying specific cases, with some reluctance to accept (and perhaps a limited interest for) broad generalizations. This may however change, and this is indeed the challenge of complex systems biology: looking for general principles in biological systems, in the spirit of complex systems science which searches for similar features and behaviours in various kinds of systems. The hope to find such general principles appears well founded, and I will show in Section 2 that there are indeed data which provide support to this claim. Besides data, there are also general ideas and models concerning the way in which biological systems work. The strategy, in this case, is that of introducing simplified models of biological organisms or processes, and to look for their generic properties: this term, borrowed from statistical physics, is used for those properties which are shared by a wide class of systems. In order to model these properties, the most effective approach has been so far that of using ensembles of systems, where each member can be different from another one, and to look for those properties which are widespread. This approach was introduced many years ago [Kauffman, 1971] in modelling gene regulatory networks. At that time one had very few information about the way in which the expression of a given gene affects that of other genes, apart from the fact that this influence is real and can be studied in few selected cases (like e.g. the lactose metabolism in E. coli). Today, after many years of triumphs of molecular biology, much more has been discovered, however the possibility of describing a complete map of gene-gene interactions in a moderately complex organism is still out of reach. Therefore the goal of fully describing a network of interacting genes in a real organism could not be (and still cannot be) achieved. But a different approach has proven very fruitful, that of asking what are the typical properties of such a set of interacting genes. Making some plausible hypotheses and introducing some simplifying assumptions, Kauffman was able to address some important problems. In particular, he drew attention to the fact that a dynamical system of interacting genes displays selforganizing properties which explain some key aspects of life, most notably the existence of a limited number of cellular types in every multicellular organism (these numbers are of the order of a few hundreds, while the number of theoretically possible types, absent interactions, would be much much larger than the number of protons in the universe). In section 3 I will describe the ensemble based approach in the context of gene regulatory networks, and I will show that it can describe some important experimental data. Finally, in section 4 I will discuss some methodological aspects.


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