For more than a half century, the Petri dish has served as a living laboratory for biologists who intensively studied its contents and advanced our understanding of how microbial and mammalian cells behave.
Now, however, researchers are drawing on knowledge and tools in such diverse areas as genetics, computer science, ecology and engineering to study how those cells and their molecular components work together as a “group,” or system—for example, to fight infections or to grow and thrive. “The idea is that biology will be advanced through not just the standard approaches of molecular and cell biology, but increasingly, by drawing on perspectives and methods from the quantitative and physical sciences,” says Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor John Yin. “We’re trying to understand the systems—how interactions among the molecular parts define cellular and multicellular behaviors.”
In the realm of human health, understanding biological systems is key to discovering why people get sick, how to prevent illness, and how to treat disease.
Yin leads the systems biology research theme in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at UW-Madison. The theme includes evolutionary systems biologist Laurence Loewe, computational expert Sushmita Roy, and experimental systems biologist Kalin Vetsigian, who are assistant professors in medical genetics, biostatistics and medical informatics, and bacteriology, respectively. While they hope to gain insights into the way organisms grow and interact, the researchers also hope their activities catalyze collaborative research and education among UW-Madison’s diverse physical and biological science fields.
Combining computational and experimental approaches, Yin is developing models that enable him to study viruses. In particular, researchers in his group focus on translating the biology into quantitative, computable, predictable models of how viruses grow and how a viral infection spreads over time and space. Recently, the researchers have studied how fluid flows—such as those in the lung—can contribute to the spread of the influenza virus. Though the obvious application of this systems biology research is in treating or preventing disease, it can extend to many disciplines, including the natural sciences. “The spread of a virus infection in your lungs can be viewed as an ecological process,” says Yin. “The most persistent viruses may be those that efficiently spread and invade new host environments.”