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The field of human biology has progressed over the last three centuries largely as a result of the reductionist approach to the scientific problems that challenge the discipline. Biologists study the experimental response of a variable of interest in a cell or organism while holding all other variables constant. In this way, it is possible to dissect the individual components of a biologic system and assume that a thorough understanding of a specific component (e.g., an enzyme or a transcription factor) will provide sufficient insight to explain the global behavior of that system (e.g., a metabolic pathway or a gene network, respectively). Biologic systems are, however, much more complex than this approach assumes and manifest behaviors that frequently (if not invariably) cannot be predicted from knowledge of their component parts characterized in isolation. Growing recognition of this shortcoming of conventional biologic research has led to the development of a new discipline, systems biology, which is defined as the holistic study of living organisms or their cellular or molecular network components to predict their response to perturbations. Concepts of systems biology can be applied readily to human disease and therapy and define the field of systems pathobiology, in which genetic or environmental perturbations produce disease and drug perturbations restore normal system behavior.

Systems biology evolved from the field of systems engineering in which a linked collection of component parts constitute a network whose output the engineer wishes to predict. The simple example of an electronic circuit can be used to illustrate some basic systems engineering concepts. All the individual elements of the circuit—resistors, capacitors, transistors—have well-defined properties that can be characterized precisely. However, they can be linked (wired or configured) in a variety of ways, each of which yields a circuit whose response to voltage applied across it is different from the response of every other configuration. To predict the circuit’s (i.e., system’s) behavior, the engineer must study its response to perturbation (e.g., voltage applied across it) holistically rather than its individual components’ responses to that perturbation. Viewed another way, the resulting behavior of the system is greater than (or different from) the simple sum of its parts, and systems engineering utilizes rigorous mathematical approaches to predict these complex, often nonlinear, responses. By analogy to biologic systems, one can reason that detailed knowledge of a single enzyme in a metabolic pathway or of a single transcription factor in a gene network will not provide sufficient detail in context to predict the output of that metabolic pathway or transcriptional network, respectively. Only a systems-based approach will suffice.

It has taken biologists a long time to appreciate the importance of systems approaches to biomedical problems. Reductionism has reigned supreme for many decades, largely because it is experimentally and analytically simpler than holism, and because it has provided insights into biologic mechanisms and disease pathogenesis that have led to successful therapies. However, reductionism cannot solve all biomedical ...

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