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Meetings Focus on Biocomplexity

By Alisa Zapp Machalek

For more than 50 years, many life scientists have investigated the secrets of health and disease by burrowing into the tiniest biological corners and painstakingly characterizing individual genes or proteins, without examining how those elements function in the whole organism.

But this reductionist approach cannot yield answers to many complex biological questions: What are the genetic and environmental influences that determine responsiveness to pharmaceuticals? What are the rules that control homeostasis in cells, tissues and organs? How do gender, ethnic background and diet affect one's risk of disease?

An increasing number of researchers believe that answering such questions requires interdisciplinary approaches. Two recent NIGMS-sponsored meetings provided opportunities to discuss such approaches.

Quantitation required

The first meeting, entitled "New Approaches to the Study of Complex Biological Processes," brought together theoretical physicists, engineers, biochemists, physicians and geneticists. For 2 days (Nov. 24-25, 1997), the participants discussed approaches, obstacles and tools necessary to understand complex processes such as metabolism, cell division and chemotaxis.

Researchers working in this area hope to characterize quantitatively the principles and dynamics of how biological molecules interact to produce healthy living organisms. They hope this will enable them to predict the behavior of whole tissues or organisms when the system is altered, as in disease.

The meeting participants agreed that such studies would require large quantities of data, powerful computers and mathematical models.

Discard the "disease gene" myth

Scientists have known for years that most of the common diseases -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer -- aren't caused by a single gene or even several genes. Instead, they're caused by an amalgamation of genes and environmental factors -- many of which are still unidentified -- interacting unpredictably with each other and modified by "context" factors such as gender and race. In other words, even if we knew all the factors involved, could we ever predict whether an individual would develop one of these "complex diseases" in his or her lifetime?

Such was the focus of the second meeting, entitled "The Genetic Architecture of Complex Traits," which was held on Dec. 10-11, 1997.

The speakers tackled issues such as the importance of new databases, study design, and accounting for the genetic history of human populations when studying complex traits for which, in words commonly repeated at the meeting, "the whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, it may be different from the sum of its parts."

For more information about the meeting "New Approaches to the Study of Complex Biological Processes," contact Dr. James Anderson at 594-0943 or To learn more about the meeting "The Genetic Architecture of Complex Traits," contact Dr. Irene Eckstrand at 594-0943 or

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