Biological systems are extremely complex. They are characterized by a massive interplay between large amounts of components over wide range of length scales of nanometers to kilometers and time scales of picoseconds to years.
Until recently a systems biology approach was almost impossible because of this complexity. However, recent technological developments allow a paradigm shift from a reductionist approach focused on simplification towards an approach that allows us to investigate and ultimately understand the system as a whole.
The key question in systems biology is how cells and organisms operate upon interaction with their external environment. Answering this question will generate generic knowledge about the dynamics of complex systems and quantitative and explanatory computer models based on experimental data that help to answer important issues such as:
- how and to what extent are biological systems steered by external and to what extent by internal, structural processes;
- how sensitive are biological systems for a perturbation of the external environment;
- how much redundancy is present within biological systems to secure their stability;
- how can biological systems be modified in a directed and predictable fashion.
The unraveling of the dynamics of complex biological systems is feasible with the help of new technological possibilities such as high throughput DNA sequencing, measurement of the activity of all genes of an organism (transcriptomics), analysis of proteins (proteomics) and analysis of all metabolites produced (metabolomics).
This data generation is then coupled to extensive data integration (bioinformatics), combined with cell biological methods such as advanced light microscopy and supported by an enormous increase in computer power.
These technological developments have created an explosion of information about living systems, ranging form cells to ecosystems, and give us close-to complete lists of all components and processes in organisms, including man. Never before in history was it possible to study the overwhelming complexity of life in such detail. This will have a large influence on many fields within the life sciences: health of humans, animals and plants, food production, safety and security, bio-energy and biodiversity.
The Faculty of Science of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has the ambition to play an important role in Systems Biology at the European as well as the global level. Therefore scientists of SILS and IBED, two research institutes of the Faculty, have joined forces in this field which is being supported financially by the Faculty of Science and the Executive Committee of the UvA since 2010.