Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh, SNAP!!

I'm going to break with tradition and just blatantly repost in full something that someone else wrote. It's a comment from this post, by someone identifying as George Smiley.

"SYSTEMS" biology is a buzzword, a glib and crass marketing term for a set of approaches that underpin much of modern biology and have for a century. What I find most offensive about it is that this particular piece of bullshit doublespeak is used *overtly* to bury the proud history our field. By pretending that these approaches are new, we imply that our foebears were ignorant of them. That we are smarter than they were. That what they did did not lead to "real" understanding. That what they did does not matter, and that you all need not trouble your pretty little heads with it. (Particularly if you're thinking about donating money to us.) Much of the prattle about "systems" biology is pro-hype, pro-marketing, ahistorical, anti-intellectual, and anti-sholarship.

It's disgusting, and it disappoints me to see some people whom I've known for some time and who really *do* know better spearheading the charge.

ANYONE who tells you that that getting physicists and engineering approaches into biology is new is either abysmally igornant of the field's history, trying to sell you a cartload of warmed-over horseshit, or (most likely) both. The agressive use of mathematical modeling? Go back to the turn of the century. Not the 21st century. The 20th. Morgan, Muller and their intellectual heirs. Look up Kimura. (If you don't know who he is, kindly shut the f-bomb up about "systems biology.") Physics and chemistry? Schroedinger, Pauling, Perutz, Huxley, Hodgkin, Huxley, Crick, Benzer, Boxer, Neher, Sakmann, Hille, Chiu, Ashkin, Berg... The list goes on and on.

What is new is high-throughput biology. Assembly-line biology. Factory biology. This is a function of real advances and it offers real opportunities for framing and testing new hypotheses. But call it what it is, or you're a fool, a charlatan, or worse.

Two final points. The most important advance in basic biology in the last decade is the recognition that RNA-based regulation is central to most eukaryotic biology. The first point is that none of the "systems" approaches led in a meaningful way to the breakthrough (though high-throughput and bioinformatic approaches certainly have been useful subsequently). The second point is that RNA-based regulation had been exhaustively documented in prokaryotic systems for almost two decades before the work of Fire and coworkers. To this day, the eukaryotic folks still generally don't cite that work.

We bury our own history at our peril.
Amen, brother.

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