Columbia University Medical Center

Saeed Tavazoie: New Technologies Throw You Out of the Box

The new methods of systems biology are forcing scientists to think in new ways

Results from TEISER technique to identify elements that govern mRNA stability How can we move from descriptions of individual cell components to a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of a cell?

Saeed Tavazoie, PhD, professor in the Departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and Systems Biology, says that efforts to understand how thousands of individual molecular components work together in the cell—a systems-level understanding—are bringing about a revolutionary change in the way we think about and conduct biology.

Dr. Tavazoie recently discussed his ideas and research in an interview posted on the Department of Systems Biology website. An excerpt appears below.


How would you describe your approach to biological research?

Saeed Tavazoie Columbia University Medical Center

Systems biologist Saeed Tavazoie, PhD.

Traditionally in biology, you had to take a very focused view of a problem. You might look closely at a particular protein or a specific biological process, and after reading a lot of papers about it, you could begin asking a question and get an answer that moved our understanding of that problem a little bit forward.

In systems biology, however, we are not interested in one particular protein or process, but in identifying the underlying principles of how the entire system behaves. This perspective has been made possible by a number of new technologies that now allow us to make large-scale measurements on the entire system—not just of all of the genes and proteins, but of all of the interactions among them. Once we gather these large collections of data, we can then analyze them to reverse engineer how all of the components within a regulatory network come together to orchestrate cellular behavior.

This approach brings about an important change in perspective. Instead of imposing a set of expectations that define how we think biology should behave, we try to be as unbiased as possible and let the system tell us what’s interesting. This isn’t to say that the traditional methods aren’t important, but when an entire system behaves in ways you never anticipated, that’s when important new discoveries are made.

When an entire system behaves in ways you never anticipated, that’s when important new discoveries are made.

The new technologies that we and others are developing not only generate a scaffold of knowledge about regulatory interactions that other scientists can use, but eventually become important tools for making progress in many other areas. In the past, technologies like microarrays, RNA-Seq, and CHiP-Seq totally changed the way people do science.

Today, new technologies that are coming out of systems biology are pushing conceptual revolutions in biology because they enable you to make observations you couldn’t make before. It’s not just that you start thinking out of the box, new technologies actually throw you out of the box and you can’t avoid thinking about things in new ways.

Read more at: An Interview with Saeed Tavazoie.