Systems and Synthetic Biology: Scientific and Social Implications
7-8 November 2008, EMBL Heidelberg, Germany
Just what is 'systems biology'? Many competing conceptions of what exactly the term refers to coexist and a concise definition has not yet emerged. What most people seem to agree on at this stage is that systems biology represents a move from a fairly static, entity-oriented outlook on life to a far more dynamic, process-oriented understanding. The days of simplistic, unidirectional accounts of the connection between genotype and phenotype are definitely over. Now scientists are focusing on how one can move from a list of molecular parts to a sophisticated and predictive understanding of biological processes.
How do cells, tissues, and ultimately organisms emerge from collective properties of interacting molecules? All seem to agree that a systems biology approach calls for multidisciplinary engagement to reap the benefits of the abundant data made available through the spectacular advances in various fields of the life sciences, including bioinformatics and computational biology, over the last two decades. If the goal of systems biology is comprehensive understanding by attending to multi-level interactions, how does this new field of science set the limits to its scope of inquiry? Ultimately, if everything is connected, then nothing is certain in the epistemic sense unless everything is taken into account. How far should the 'multi-level interactions' be extended? Wherever the limits are drawn, with the rapidly increasing availability of all sorts of basic biological data, along with databases of correlation and causality, medical professionals and researchers will benefit from systems biology's ability to integrate data relevant to healthcare and therapies. As systems biology advances our understanding of how the parts operate together, it provides us with the conceptual tools needed for rational construction and redesign, the essence of synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology in turn is discipline that pursues the know how and technologies permitting the (re-)construction/(re-)invention of biological systems. It is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field that seeks to merge together the biological sciences and engineering in order to design and build novel biological functions and systems. Synthetic biology is mostly focused on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, building on know how from systems biology. The former seeks to test our current understanding of natural systems by building instances of the system in accordance with our current understanding. One could thus argue that synthetic biology is the design counterpart of systems biology. In this light, should synthetic biology be understood as not primarily a 'discovery science', but rather as the cutting edge of today's applied life science? At least it seems that work within synthetic biology is systematically being oriented towards various forms of tool creation and application. As such it heralds a redefinition and expansion of biotechnology with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and our environment.