Using a computational approach to study the history of systems biology: from systems to biology, 1992-2013

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Systems biology studies complex biological systems. It is an interdisciplinary field, with biologists working with non-biologists such as computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and mathematicians to address research problems applying systems’

Systems biology studies complex biological systems. It is an interdisciplinary field, with biologists working with non-biologists such as computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and mathematicians to address research problems applying systems’ perspectives. How these different researchers and their disciplines differently contributed to the advancement of this field over time is a question worth examining. Did systems biology become a systems-oriented science or a biology-oriented science from 1992 to 2013?

This project utilized computational tools to analyze large data sets and interpreted the results from historical and philosophical perspectives. Tools deployed were derived from scientometrics, corpus linguistics, text-based analysis, network analysis, and GIS analysis to analyze more than 9000 articles (metadata and text) on systems biology. The application of these tools to a HPS project represents a novel approach.

The dissertation shows that systems biology has transitioned from a more mathematical, computational, and engineering-oriented discipline focusing on modeling to a more biology-oriented discipline that uses modeling as a means to address real biological problems. Also, the results show that bioengineering and medical research has increased within systems biology. This is reflected in the increase of the centrality of biology-related concepts such as cancer, over time. The dissertation also compares the development of systems biology in China with some other parts of the world, and reveals regional differences, such as a unique trajectory of systems biology in China related to a focus on traditional Chinese medicine.

This dissertation adds to the historiography of modern biology where few studies have focused on systems biology compared with the history of molecular biology and evolutionary biology.