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Sara Green, Olaf Wolkenhauer
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With the emergence of systems biology the notion of organizing principles is being highlighted as a key research aim. Researchers attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ the functional organization of biological systems using methodologies from mathematics, engineering and computer science while taking advantage of data produced by new experimental techniques. While systems biology is a relatively new approach, the quest for general principles of biological organization dates back to systems theoretic approaches in early and mid-20th century. The aim of this paper is to draw on this historical background in order to increase the understanding of the motivation behind the systems theoretic approach and to clarify different epistemic aims within systems biology. We pinpoint key aspects of earlier approaches that also underlie the current practice. These are i) the focus on relational and system-level properties, ii) the inherent critique of reductionism and fragmentation of knowledge resulting from overspecialization, and iii) the insight that the ideal of formulating abstract organizing principles is complementary to, rather than conflicting with, the aim of formulating detailed explanations of biological mechanisms. We argue that looking back not only helps us understand the current practice but also points to possible future directions for systems biology.

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