Each year, Sanford-Burnham’s annual symposium features a different topic. Past years have focused on infectious diseases, RNA biology and other disciplines. This year, however, the 33rd annual meeting introduced an entirely new scientific field: Structural Systems Biology.The June 7 symposium was opened with a welcome from Dr. Adam Godzik, director of Sanford-Burnham’s Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Program and one of the meeting’s co-organizers. “When I tell people I am a biologist, they think of organisms,” he said, showing a picture of zoo animals and wildflowers. “But I actually work on the parts.” With that, he flipped to cartoons of genes and proteins.
Structural Biology generates data related to the physical shape of these individual proteins– how they’re folded, how they form complexes with other proteins, what they look like in 3D. That information helps answer questions about how proteins perform their duties –facilitate chemical reactions, carry molecular signals in and out of cells, control cellular movements, etc. Understanding a protein’s structure and function helps identify its role in human health and disease, as well as its potential as a therapeutic target.
But, as Dr. Godzik went on to explain, these individual components all exist as part of a system. They are each a “node” in a network that controls an aspect of cellular behavior – turning genes on and off, communicating with other cells, metabolizing nutrients or performing any number of other processes. Systems Biology focuses on all these components and the interactions among them. Scientists in this field aim to create meaningful models capable of quantifying and predicting these complex cellular processes.