Organismal Systems Biology aims to explain how high level properties of complex organisms arise from the interactions among their constituent parts. The core components of the systems-biological reasoning fostered by the Center are represented by the circles in the figure. Discoveries of ORDER may be temporal or spatial, and, if spatial, can pertain to the assembly of entities [structure] or the repetition of entities [pattern]. Models of DYNAMIC PROCESSES arise at time scales from the nanosecond to days and months [physiology] through the life span [development] and up to millions of years [evolution]. Control of order and dynamics is not only by energy but also by INFORMATION, manifest at various levels from the cell through the network within the organism and, at even higher levels, by the influence of other conspecifics [social] or of general environmental conditions.

The support that these central concepts offer for explaining the emergence and behavior of higher-level properties guides the research carried out at the Center. This integrative approach is particularly suited for analyzing the transitions among levels of organization that are characteristic for complex organisms – not only in the molecular-to-cellular level transitions where we are most used to seeing them nowadays, but also at the level of the embryo, tissue, physiological system, life cycle, or population.

Organismal systems biology can involve experiments, statistics, or mathematical models and computing. It is comfortable with explanations at multiple physical and temporal scales at the same time (e.g. fractal structures, collective behaviors, bifurcations). It is particularly interested in the ways that systems can show stable properties (homeostasis) in the face of fluctuations of their own internal details or of the environments in which they develop and survive. Robustness, in this sense, is a system property, expressed sometimes in stable structures (such as epithelium) and sometimes in stable cycles (the cell cycle, the cardiac cycle, biorhythms). Also of central interest is the general notion of "function," the way a biological system acquires and converts free energy from the environment into changes ranging from new structure to locomotion, reproduction, predation, or into system maintenance or repair. A particularly interesting function is the acquisition of information and its conversion to structure, as by sensory and neuronal networks, through processes that range from mere perception to symbol-grounding, and their use for guiding behavior.


Center for Organismal Systems Biology | Faculty of Life Sciences | University of Vienna