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Biological science takes on a new dimension



Pacific Northwest's Biomolecular Systems Initiative takes a systems approach to biology to build solutions to critical environmental and health problems. Defining how to bring together diverse types of information is at the heart of the initiative.

"We've been learning more and more about less and less," said H. Steven Wiley, a senior chief scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who leads the Biomolecular Systems Initiative. While Wiley meant to be humorous, he was summing up the challenge facing today's life scientists and the reason systems biology is the wave of the future.

When scientists are investigating complex systems, they usually start at a high level and break things down into smaller pieces as they discover more specific details. Researchers then begin specializing in trying to understand how individual parts of the system might work.

Pacific Northwest's Biomolecular Systems Initiative takes a systems approach to biology to build solutions to critical environmental and health problems. Defining how to bring together diverse types of information is at the heart of the initiative.

"Biology is very complex. It is governed by physical and chemical processes as well as higher level processes. To fully understand living systems, people need to think about how to take knowledge from different fields of science and find a way to integrate it."

"Unlike physics and chemistry, which are guided by well-established rules and laws, the life sciences have been predominantly descriptive. We are only now entering a phase where the underlying principles can be understood," Wiley said.

The Laboratory's initiative integrates data in ways that allow scientists to begin understanding how higher level systems work. Laboratory researchers are building mathematical models to simulate living systems. Scientists compare data collected in experiments with their models and use high-powered computers to explore both their results and the simulations. They test and revise the models as they learn. "Eventually, the result will be a mathematic model that accurately represents what is happening in the subsystems of a cell," Wiley said.

One application for the new models would be drug design. Researchers can learn why a drug degrades in the body and how the drug travels through cellular pathways. With that knowledge, they can find ways to change the drug to make it last longer. "We're learning more about the relationship between the small parts and the entire system," Wiley said.

Pacific Northwest is involved in all aspects of systems biology, pursuing computational science, research instrumentation, experimental studies and mathematical modeling.

"The future of life sciences and the benefits it will bring will be enormous. It will completely revolutionize science and technology," Wiley said.

The U.S. Department of Energy supports systems biology research because it can lead to solutions to problems in energy, health, national security and the environment including carbon sequestration, bioremediation and global warming.

"It's amazing to think that we can have the knowledge of how living things work captured in a network of computers and be able to tap into thousands of parts of a cell at laboratories around the world, Wiley said. "I think we'll be there within 50 years."

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For more see www.biomolecular.org.

 

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