Just returned from the International Conference on Systems Biology in Gothenburg, where I presented a brief talk on chronotherapy (see this New Scientist article). For me the most interesting session was the last one which featured keynote talks by two founders of systems biology (or at least systems biology institutes): Hiroaki Kitano of the Systems Biology Institute in Japan, and Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. Kitano started with a summary of the environmental problems such as global warming and ecosystem collapse which he believes threaten our civilization. He then focused on the importance of ocean systems and particularly coral reefs as carbon sinks, and explained some of the systems biology of coral and their problems coping with rising ocean temperatures. Coral reefs support a huge range of biodiversity and also absorb a lot of carbon, so their loss would be a double blow to the health of the world system.
Kitano’s talk was fascinating, though I’d have liked to hear his thoughts about another species that is important for carbon exchange, namely ourselves. If systems biology can be used to analyse coral reefs or the growth of yeast, maybe we could use it to analyse our own economy. An earlier talk, for example, had shown that yeast colonies are more robust to environmental shocks when they are growing slowly – are there implications for our own pro-growth economy?
Hood’s talk was very different, and was about how new technologies that can scan a drop of blood for protein markers will revolutionise healthcare. The idea is that every six months we will prick our finger with a machine that will send the info for analysis. If anything is out of whack, we get a message outlining the problem and telling us to check with a doctor. The machines could, at very low cost, test for thousands of proteins that act as advance markers for diseases including cancer.
Of course, the idea that we can accurately predict health sounds a little ambitious, given that we can’t predict the weather or the economy despite having excellent data. However just as observational weather data help us spot the development of storms, it’s easy to imagine that this technology will help detect and diagnose serious health problems. It will also be useful for analysing how patients are responding to toxic drugs such as chemotherapeutic agents.