This article argues that the gene-centric interpretations of evolution, and more particularly the selfish gene expression of those interpretations, form barriers to the integration of physiological science with evolutionary theory. A gene-centred approach analyses the relationships between genotypes and phenotypes in terms of differences (change the genotype and observe changes in phenotype). We now know that, most frequently, this does not correctly reveal the relationships because of extensive buffering by robust networks of interactions. By contrast, understanding biological function through physiological analysis requires an integrative approach in which the activity of the proteins and RNAs formed from each DNA template is analysed in networks of interactions. These networks also include components that are not specified by nuclear DNA. Inheritance is not through DNA sequences alone. The selfish gene idea is not useful in the physiological sciences, since selfishness cannot be defined as an intrinsic property of nucleotide sequences independently of gene frequency, i.e. the ‘success’ in the gene pool that is supposed to be attributable to the ‘selfish’ property. It is not a physiologically testable hypothesis.
In this paper we raise ‘ten questions’ broadly related to ‘omics’, the term systems biology, and why the new biology has failed to deliver major therapeutic advances for many common diseases, especially diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We argue that a fundamentally narrow and reductionist perspective about the contribution of genes and genetic variants to disease is a key reason ‘omics’ has failed to deliver the anticipated breakthroughs. We then point out the critical utility of key concepts from physiology like homeostasis, regulated systems and redundancy as major intellectual tools to understand how whole animals adapt to the real world. We argue that a lack of fluency in these concepts is a major stumbling block for what has been narrowly defined as ‘systems biology’ by some of its leading advocates. We also point out that it is a failure of regulation at multiple levels that causes many common diseases. Finally, we attempt to integrate our critique of reductionism into a broader social framework about so-called translational research in specific and the root causes of common diseases in general. Throughout we offer ideas and suggestions that might be incorporated into the current biomedical environment to advance the understanding of disease through the perspective of physiology in conjunction with epidemiology as opposed to bottom-up reductionism alone.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project and the advent of the large scaled unbiased ‘-omics’ techniques, the field of systems biology has emerged. Systems biology aims to move away from the traditional reductionist molecular approach, which focused on understanding the role of single genes or proteins, towards a more holistic approach by studying networks and interactions between individual components of networks. From a conceptual standpoint, systems biology elicits a ‘back to the future’ experience for any integrative physiologist. However, many of the new techniques and modalities employed by systems biologists yield tremendous potential for integrative physiologists to expand their tool arsenal to (quantitatively) study complex biological processes, such as cardiac remodelling and heart failure, in a truly holistic fashion. We therefore advocate that systems biology should not become/stay a separate discipline with ‘-omics’ as its playing field, but should be integrated into physiology to create ‘Integrative Physiology 2.0’.
The microcirculation exemplifies the mesoscale in physiological systems, bridging larger and smaller scale phenomena. Microcirculatory research represents an example of a ‘middle-out,’ rather than ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up,’ approach to the study of biological function. Computational and mathematical approaches can be used to analyse the functioning of the microcirculation and to establish quantitative relationships between microvascular processes and phenomena occurring on larger and smaller scales, leading to insights which could not be obtained solely by reductionist biological experiments. Given its integrative approach to processes occurring on disparate scales and its emphasis on theoretical as well as experimental approaches, microcirculatory research belongs within current definitions of systems biology.
Over the last 10 years, ‘Systems Biology’ has focused on the integration of biology and medicine with information technology and computation. The current challenge is to use the discoveries of the last 20 years, such as genomics and proteomics, to develop targeted therapeutical strategies. These strategies are the result of understanding the aetiologies of complex diseases. Scientists predict the data will make personalized medicine rapidly available. However, the data need to be considered as a highly complex system comprising multiple inputs and feedback mechanisms. Translational medicine requires the functional and conceptual linkage of genetics to proteins, proteins to cells, cells to organs, organs to systems and systems to the organism. To help understand the complex integration of these systems, a mathematical model of the entire human body, which accurately links the functioning of all organs and systems together, could provide a framework for the development and testing of new hypotheses that will be important in clinical outcomes. There are several efforts to develop a ‘Human Physiome’, with the strengths and weaknesses of each being presented here. The development of a ‘Human Model’, with verification, documentation and validation of the underlying and integrative responses...
On first impression the ‘whole-istic approach to understanding biology’ that has been used to describe Systems Biology bears a striking resemblance to what many of us know as Integrative Physiology. However, closer scrutiny reveals that at the present time Systems Biology is rooted in processes operating at a cellular level (‘the study of an organism, viewed as an integrated and interacting network of genes, proteins and biochemical reactions which give rise to life … ultimately responsible for an organism's form and functions’; http://www.systemsbiology.org), and appears to have evolved as a direct result of advances in high throughput molecular biology platforms (and associated bioinformatics) over the past decade. The Systems Biology approach is in many ways laudable, but it will be immediately apparent to most exercise or integrative physiologists that the challenge of understanding the whole-animal response to exercise as a network of integrated and interacting genes, proteins and biochemical reactions is unlikely to be realized in the near future. This short review will attempt to clarify conceptual inconsistencies between the fields of Systems Biology and Integrative Physiology in the context of exercise science, and will attempt to identify the challenges to whole-body physiologists wishing to harness the tools of Systems Biology.