Systems biology

Systems biology

Researcher with computer servers
Cells contain hundreds of thousands of different molecules. How a cell functions depends on complex interactions between these molecules. Our systems biology researchers are revealing the many links between different molecules. This is explaining how cells function, and what changes contribute to disease.

Systems biology research at the institute

Our systems biology researchers are focused on:

  • Investigating how molecules interact in networks in health and disease, using state-of-the-art technologies.
  • Making sense of the complex data generated by studies of healthy and diseased cells.
  • Establishing new ways to diagnose cancer, and to match different types of cancers with effective treatments.

Our systems biology research incorporates many research fields, including:

What is systems biology?

Cells are made up of many types of molecules that work together, or interact, in highly coordinated ways that allow the cells to function properly. Systems biology explores the complex interactions between the molecules in a cell.

Systems biology is particularly focused on the interactions between:

  • Proteins: molecules that perform myriad functions within the cell.
  • DNA: which stores the cell’s genetic information, including the instructions for making proteins.
  • RNA: which links DNA with the protein-making machinery,
  • Metabolites: small molecules such as sugars and lipids that fuel the cell.

These molecules can interact with, and influence, a variety of other molecules. In some cases, molecules in a cell may be influenced by external signals, such as signalling molecules binding to a receptor.

The many molecular interactions occurring within a cell are considered ‘networks’. Changes in one particular molecule, such as the amount of protein, or a change in one DNA base, can trigger changes in thousands of other molecules in the network. This can have profound influences on how the cell functions.

Many diseases can be traced to changes in one, or a few, molecules – such as a single genetic change that triggers disease.

Systems biology can reveal how changes in one molecule influence other molecules in its network. This can lead to new insights into:

  • How normal cells develop and function.
  • How molecular changes, which may be complex, cause disease.
  • Better ways to diagnose disease, by assessing many molecular changes at once.
  • Innovative strategies for treating disease based on targeting key points in a crucial network.

Systems biology techniques

To create a holistic picture of the molecular networks controlling health and disease, our systems biology research relies on:

  • Advances in experimental technology that enable our researchers to precisely measure the many changes occurring in molecular networks within cells.
  • Powerful statistical and computational methods that reliably record and decipher the large and complex data generated by these experiments. Bioinformatics techniques are an important aspect of this.

High-throughput technologies are an important aspect of systems biology experimentation. Robots and computers enable our researchers to rapidly and accurately carry out thousands or even millions of experiments.

These methods generate a huge amount of data that describe different molecules in and outside of the cell. The data are integrated using computational techniques. This can provide new insights into the interaction networks of different molecules within cells.

Insights into disease

Our systems biology researchers are revealing the role of molecular interactions and cell communication in health and disease.

Mapping blood cell development

Systems biology approaches have allowed our researchers to generate ‘road maps’ of the molecules that are critical at every stage of blood cell development. This is revealing the defects that can lead to blood diseases, including leukaemia.

Early detection of bowel cancer

Bowel cancers that are detected early are more likely to be cured. Most Australian bowel cancer cases are not detected at this early stage, and better tests are needed. Our researchers are using systems biology to develop a new diagnostic blood test for bowel cancer.

Finding the best treatment for cancer

The best treatment for a person with cancer depends on the type of cancer they have – such as lung cancer, leukaemia or ovarian cancer. However, not all patients with the same type of cancer respond to the same treatments. Our systems biology researchers are developing new ways to predict how a person with cancer will respond to different treatments. Their goal is to develop new strategies to match a person with cancer to the best treatment for their individual disease.


Dr Rory Bowden

Dr Rory Bowden photographed smiling at the camera
Genomics Laboratory Head and Centre Manager, WEHI Advanced Genomics Facility

Dr Anna Coussens

Dr Anna Coussens in a laboratory
Laboratory Head

Professor Melissa Davis

Portrait photo of Professor Melissa Davis
Joint Division Head

Professor Doug Hilton

Professor Doug at WEHI
Institute Director; Laboratory Head