Systems Biology in the ERA – Past and Present
In general, the term Systems Biology describes the study of biological systems at a so called systems level. Although this approach is not a new concept in the life sciences - e.g. many former approaches in physiology, enzymology and other scientific disciplines have already taken a systemic view of selected biological subjects - SB has gained strong interest within the past 10 to 15 years. A major reason and an essential prerequisite for the success story of SB certainly are that the scientific methodologies and overall available research tools for scientists – e.g. the so called omics technologies as well as others such as new and most powerful imaging techniques – have emerged to a novel and far more powerful level than ever in the history of mankind. This tremendous technical progress is responsible for the fact that quantitative data on biological processes and activities can be collected by far more easily and reliably in incredibly huge amounts and in rather short time.
The central and far most important feature of SB is that it integrates several scientific disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering to gain a better understanding of complex biological processes. SB uses quantitative biological data as a basis for sophisticated computational and mathematical modelling. The resulting mathematical models have the power to describe complex biological processes in mathematical equations. From planning of a SB project, iterative cycles of experimental data acquisition, modelling, and simulation help to continuously improve the quality of models to an extreme high level of confidence and accuracy. In other words, sophisticated SB approaches have the potential to make biological processes predictable to a high extent. This feature is an amazingly powerful support for the design and execution of intelligent experiments, the smarter redesign of former experiments and the overall design of novel research approaches. Since the SB approach is universally applicable, SB is able to integrate and to simulate research on biological and physiological processes at various levels, ranging from the subcellular to the cellular-, organ-, organism- and even to the population level.
Reflecting on the current situation of SB in Europe, it is amazing to see how SB has progressed within the last years, and how it has continuously and successfully paved the way for a more thorough understanding of biology of organisms and biological processes in almost all fields of the life sciences research. Consequently, SB is nowadays often regarded to be the most powerful, potent and promising present scientific approach, embodying a tremendous potential to provide important answers to major biological challenges and environmental problems mankind faces in the 21st century. It’s coherent that SB at the same time has gained an enormous social and economic impact, which is probably only comparable to the great scientific advances in the 20th century - such as the advances in physics, which provided electrification, enabling e.g. radio communication, electronics, telephony, internal combustion engines, nuclear power and the internet.
In order to make such impacts become real and manifest social and economical effects, SB research approaches have to be directed towards applications, industrial-relevant topics or in other words to translational research. When it becomes translational research, novel SB research approaches may have a tremendous impact on the production of certain goods and moreover on the development and implementation of novel products (drug research, etc.) and medical treatments in general.
If SB can contribute e.g. to a more sustainable and healthier production of foods, a more streamlined bio production of important complex molecules and substances, which act as precursors for industrial production (pigments, vitamins, complex carbon heterocycles and secondary plant substances etc.), better health treatment, improved waste disposal or whatsoever, its important impact will immediately become visible for everybody – to an SB expert as well as to an average citizen.
This SB development did not happen by chance, but is due to a continuous developmental process of support, promotion and generous funding of SB research within the ERA for many years. Despite the fact that many members of the ERA have recognised the importance and the inherent potential of SB very early, it still took huge funding efforts and financial investments in research initiatives and research infrastructures within the past years to reach the status quo.
A milestone within the establishment of SB in the ERA was the funding and establishment of the ERANET ERASysBio. This ERANET started in 2006 with 16 consortium partners from 13 countries. ERASysBio was created to act as a nucleus in the consolidation of SB research in Europe and its neighbouring and associated countries with an additional focus on global aspects. ERASysBio supported joint systems biological activities on a national and regional level and contributed to a harmonised funding and coordination of initiatives amongst the participating funding organisations in the ERA. Its ultimate goal was declared to provide a sound knowledge base for SB in order to help SB become an established scientific approach, embedded in the policies and strategies of all concerned institutions, public and private organisations and the research policies of the national governments across the ERA. In addition to the tangible results of ERASysBio, the consortium developed a 5 to 10 year vision paper on a number of specific recommendations for SB on how to continue the success story of SB in the ERA.
These recommendations, which were thought to compensate for identified existing gaps and needs of current SB, comprised (I) the establishment of a number of transnational systems biology networks in the ERA, (II) the encouragement of adoption of data management and sharing best practices in the ERA, (III) the adoption of data standards in the ERA, (IV) the optimisation of education and training in SB in ERA, (V) the establishment of SB research structures across the ERA, and (VI) the exploration of mechanisms to strengthen the academic-industrial link in SB in the ERA. Thus, the ERASysBio consortium has provided a framework for further SB activities and novel ERANETs such as ERASysAPP. The most remarkable novel activity of ERASysAPP will probably be the establishment of joint transnational calls with a pronounced commitment to applied SB and industrial-relevant translational research.