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Confronting Complexity

In the past three years, new departments and entire research institutes have been founded to pursue in silico biology at Stanford University, Caltech, Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, to name a few. All have the explicit goal of uniting biologists with physicists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists to create computer simulations that probe the outstanding problems of biology and medicine.

Forcing this in silico revolution are several inescapable facts: first is the sequencing of a host of complete genomes-the human genome being the most mediagenic-and the accompanying explosion in genomics technology. As a result, for the first time in history, researchers have what amounts to a genetic parts list for living organisms from bacteria to humans. This in turn has produced a shift in emphasis from the traditional focus of biology-“on intensive analysis of the individual components of complex biological systems,” as Whitehead Institute biologists Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg recently described it in Science-to a focus on how those components work together in networks and entire cellular systems.

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