In almost every grant application and scientific paper, usually in the last sentence, you will find the grand outlook for the researchers' work: a cure for cancer, a drug to combat COVID-19, an explanation for baffling disease patterns. Even when it is meant honestly as a long-term goal, the authors are humbly aware that the road to achieving that goal is broad and convoluted, and that failure is much more likely than success. All the more striking, then, is the confidence expressed in the subtitle of "Die Vermessung des Lebens" (The Measurement of Life) by science journalist Peter Spork: "How systems biology can help us see our bodies as a whole – and prevent disease before it happens".
Or perhaps systems biology – represented at the Max Delbrück Center by the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB), among others – needs the optimistic, big-picture outsider's perspective that this book provides?
Spork could usefully have provided more detail on the historical context, with which he links systems biology to the 'science hippies' of the Esalen Institute in California in the 1970s. However, with the help of many interviews with systems biologists (including an in-depth conversation with BIMSB Director Nikolaus Rajewsky), the book does a good job of bringing the general concepts and ideas of this scientific discipline to a broad audience.
So what is systems biology? The author obviously delves into this question in detail. Current technologies such as genomics and proteomics are clearly explained, the subheadings in the corresponding chapters reading like a list of MDC technology platforms. Spork provides plenty of examples to illustrate how the use of systems biology methods could offer tangible benefits. He focuses on readily accessible studies on topics such as nutrition and ageing, which are necessarily still in their early stages. Basic research tends to be mentioned only in passing.
The author emphasises several times – and this is one of the book's strengths – how much systems biology is a data science. It is set apart from more 'traditional' forms of biomedical research by the exploratory (rather than hypothesis-driven) collection of huge volumes of data and the analysis of this data using algorithms. The complex system of life is understood with the help of scientific methods drawn from a wide range of disciplines – because, as the author predicts: "It will be systems biology that ends the contention between all disciplines." Spork further writes that medicine needs to be turned the right way up. Instead of focusing on diseases and finding ways to cure them, it should focus on health and how it can be maintained with the help of extensive collections of data. This is the aim of the pan-European LifeTime initiative, coordinated by BIMSB and Institut Curie in Paris.
It would be easy to be carried along by the author's enthusiasm and technology euphoria, were it not for the countless examples in human history of well-intended technological innovations being dominated and controlled by social power structures. Spork claims that "systems biology will make us freer" as a "direct consequence of the increase in knowledge." Unfortunately, when seen in the light of history, this seems a rather yearning hope.
Nevertheless, thanks to the author's brisk yet detailed style, the book certainly does increase the reader's knowledge. For this reason, "Die Vermessung des Lebens" will provide a good basis on which to follow and contribute to the scientific and public dialogue on technological and medical advances in the years ahead.
The book is currently only available in German.
Peter Spork: Die Vermessung des Lebens: Wie wir mit Systembiologie erstmals unseren Körper ganzheitlich begreifen – und Krankheiten verhindern, bevor sie entstehen. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt (DVA), Munich 2021, hardback, 336 pp, €24.00