Eberhard Voit can be forgiven if he sometimes felt like a recluse among scientists early in his career. As a system biologist, he didn’t have a lot of company.
But he says that all changed around 2000, near the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, which utilized an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach to transform biology, leading to the launch of ‘systems biology.’
“Then, all of a sudden, we came out of the shadows,” says Voit, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) and a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.
“Talk about a tipping point,” says Voit, also a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Systems Biology. “That was the Human Genome Project. Until then, nobody even wanted to talk with people like me. ”
Probably, it’s because they wouldn’t have known what to talk about.
“The field was very, very underdeveloped,” says Voit, who has spent a good part of his career trying to explain what systems biology is, becoming an internationally recognized leader in the field and an authoritative spokesperson as the author of five books on the subject.
His textbook, A First Course in Systems Biology, is required reading for BME students at the Georgia Institute of Technology. While that book has been hailed as one of the best in the field, a powerful introduction to systems biology, it isn’t exactly light reading, and the target audience is limited.
“There aren’t a lot of people looking for systems biology books in the book store, and what they do find is incomprehensible,” said Voit, who decided to write something that would appeal to a larger audience, partly because, “it started to bother me that not even my own family and friends would read my books.”
Systems biology is, basically, a holistic, but rigorously anchored approach to biological research; the study of whole systems (molecules, cells, organisms or entire species), utilizing technologies like genomics, molecular analysis and proteomics and, importantly, mathematical and computational models.
“Most books in the field use heavy, heavy math. I wanted to write a systems biology book without equations,” says Voit.
The result is the recently published The Inner Workings of Life: Vignettes in Systems Biology. The reader doesn’t have to dive very deep before realizing that this is not your average science book.
The front of the book has an ‘Appetizer,’ instead of a ‘Preface or ‘Foreword.’ The chapters have provocative titles like, “I’d rather be fishin’” and “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” and “Love thyself and fight all others.”
Voit is obviously having fun and manages to commiserate with the reader while sharing his knowledge with this new book. For instance, he lightheardedly mocks the overuse of some jargon within his field (there’s a whole chapter, most of it tongue-in-cheek while also managing to be explanatory, on the nearly ubiquitous suffix “-omics”), but then he includes a helpful, informative section called “Gentle Jargon” near the back of the book.
Basically, The Inner Works of Life is Voit’s way of explaining himself and his work and the field he works within, to people who pay the freight.
“The taxpayer is paying for this research we’re doing, and if he or she is interested in what we’re doing, he or she should have the opportunity to learn more about it, without needing an advanced degree,” Voit says. “This is rather complicated stuff, especially the technical aspects, but one should be able to write about what is happening out there in systems biology in an easy-to-understand way. You can write what the challenges are, what the promise is, why we are doing what we do. All of that was a good reason to write this book.”
It’s the first of its kind – a systems biology book that is accessible to the general reading public. Voit was probably the perfect fit for this kind of groundbreaking. He was the first person in the 630-year history of the University of Cologne (in his native Germany) to major in biology with a minor in mathematics.
“They laughed at me then because, at the time, the thinking was that biology is too complicated to use math,” he says. “Now we know that biology is too complicated not to use math.”
But there are no equations in Voit’s new book. He relies on facts, narrative, wit, and the occasional metaphor to help define a field of research that is still defining itself, populated by researchers who are finally out of the shadows. Voit thinks of these system biologists, who are working in a realm that is central to all areas of biology and medicine, as master Sudoku players.
“Trying to figure out how the multitudinous parts in cells work together to create something as incredible as a brain is very attractive to us,” he says. “We are fully aware that we will not solve the whole puzzle in our lifetimes, but nature is modular, and every systems biologist hopes to solve a large sub-puzzle, or at least a few smaller puzzles. The intellectual challenge is the enormous complexity of every cell and organism, which requires us to invent new tools and methods, and that’s what systems biology is all about.”
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience