Living energies mini-series
The secret of life is not to be found in the molecular nuts and bolts in
living organisms. Instead, it may be in how organisms use energy. This
mini-series will hint at what lies in store, which gives concrete meanings to
renewable living energy and sustainability. A selection of the articles in the
series will be circulated.
To see the entire series, please
to Science in Society magazine or become a Member of ISIS.
Details here. These
articles appear in issue 21.
- No System in Systems
- Biologys Theory of Everything
- Energy, Productivity & Biodiversity
- Why Are Organisms So
Complex A Lesson in Sustainability
ISIS Report 22/01/04
No System in Systems Biology
Biology has lost its way in more ways than one.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on the
desperation to make sense of the data deluge pouring out from genomics and
for this report are available in the ISIS members site.
Full details here
Compared to hard sciences like physics and chemistry,
biology has been remarkably lacking in theoretical foundations. Much of biology
remains at the descriptive level, as the term botanising so aptly
Molecular genetics, which has dominated biology for decades, is worse in
many respects. A lengthy compendium of cook-book recipes and an
armoury of routine techniques make all but the most banal theorizing redundant
if not irrelevant. If anything, theorizing is frowned upon as
mere speculation, and not to be trusted as much as more
As genome sequences are still spilling out of sequencing machines,
gene discovery has passed into the humdrum, and researchers are
desperate to recover raison detre in transcriptomics
and proteomics to follow genomics. They are lifting the lid on even
more bewildering complexities and generating a data deluge that threatens to
drown out the biggest computers plus the armies of information technologists
needed to service them. The amount of data in the public database at the
National Center for Biotechnology Information doubles every 12 months. There
are 1 200 person-years of experimental data simply on the role of a few genes
in the development of the fruitfly. The academic institutions are rising to the
In September 2003, Harvard University Medical School opened a new
department in 20 years to focus on systems biology. Nearby,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology had already started a Computational and
Systems Biology Initiative with 80 faculty members. The Weizmann Institute of
Science in Rehovot, Israel, too, is planning its own systems biology institute.
The mission is to forge links between biologists, mathematicians and engineers
to "integrate" the data deluge into a more complete picture of biological
networks from genes to cells to whole organisms.
In early November 2003, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) held workshops on systems biology. This
injection of funding has done much to lift the spirits and the hopes of
Sydney Brenner, 2002 Nobel laureate for genome sequencing, warns people
not to get "infatuated with data for its own sake". He says that, "if we do not
define the problem, we wont know what information is important." He
declares as "rubbish" the idea that one can "make a lot of measurements and
something will come out of it."
Life has stubbornly refused to yield up its secret so far. No meaning of
life can be deciphered from the molecular nuts and bolts, however complicated.
No unifying concept has emerged, or will ever emerge, for understanding the
whole organism, let alone the living world, simply by amassing more data on yet
more molecules, or connecting them up in dense jungles of interaction networks
that give anyone but the most dedicated a splitting headache.
How fortunate that there are biologists who still set their sights on
organisms and ecosystems. They may well be on the way to discovering
biologys theory of everything, a theory that promises to
unify the living world, giving us tantalizing glimpses of organisms behaving as