Science in Society Archive

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.

  1. No System in Systems Biology
  2. Biology’s Theory of Everything
  3. Energy, Productivity & Biodiversity
  4. Why Are Organisms So Complex - A Lesson in Sustainability

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 related research.

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 implies.

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 experiments’.

As genome sequences are still spilling out of sequencing machines, ‘gene discovery’ has passed into the humdrum, and researchers are desperate to recover raison d’etre 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 challenge.

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 molecular geneticists.

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 won’t 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 biology’s ‘theory of everything’, a theory that promises to unify the living world, giving us tantalizing glimpses of organisms behaving as indivisible wholes.

Article first published 22/01/04


  1. Pennisi E. Tracing life’s circuitry. Science 2003, 302, 1646-9.

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