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  • Writer's pictureVedant Parikh

Lab Notes on: Systems Biology

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Rebecca Zhang's notes on systems biology a field that looks at life holistically.


Biological interactions are essential for the continuation of life, so there is never a moment where the components of biology are not working together. To understand the functions and purposes of life, it is crucial to understand these interactions. Scientists do this by using systems biology, a field— though often described as more of an “attitude and mindset” rather than a distinct field— centered around the interactions and behaviors between different biological units in a system, which includes anything as small as a molecule or as large as an ecosystem.

As previously stated, biological units are always working together to allow for life. This means that systems are everywhere and that systems biology is used everywhere, including in cell biology, proteomics, genomics, immunology, physiology, neurobiology, ecology, bioenergy, and more.

A rapidly developing and increasingly important department, bioenergy research involves the study of plants and their potential roles in producing biofuel. Scientists use systems biology in bioenergy research to understand how the way a plant grows and the way microbes break it down interact so that the process of biofuel production, which involves the breaking down of plants to produce energy.

In each of these fields, the same ideas of systems biology are applied. Possibly the most prominent of these ideas is emergence. Often defined by Aristotle’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” emergent, or collective, properties arise in systems but not their constituents; it is essential to recognize that understanding the individual components of a system does not result in understanding or having the ability to predict the behavior of the system the components comprise. In addition to emergent properties, it is also important to understand the concepts of robustness, modularity, and evolution and how they relate within a system: robustness is defined by a system’s ability to maintain stability and respond in the presence of environmental fluctuations. Modularity is defined by a system’s ability to organize separate units to yield an efficient system. Evolution is defined by the development of traits of a species in response to changes in environments. In a system, all four mentioned factors work together to maximize survival and efficiency.

Much of systems biology utilizes technology and skills from bioinformatics and computational biology to model and analyze the large amounts of data gathered by studying systems. DNA sequencing, microarray analysis, mass spectrometry, nanotechnology, and cell sorting are just a few of the many technological tools that can be used for systems biology. In the real world, systems biology can be used in sequencing genomes (as seen with the Human Genome Project), identifying faulty genes involved in causing diseases, identifying potential therapeutic treatments against diseases, studying the carbon cycle, and engineering various biofuels to replace more harmful energy sources. As seen with the wide variety of examples, this area of study is more integrated into other fields rather than applied on its own, meaning that having an understanding of systems biology is useful for any scientist. It opens doors to more in-depth comprehension of complex topics and allows for the study of life on an applicable, biotechnological— not only fundamental— level.

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