Research in the biosciences has changed fundamentally in recent years. In the past, research mainly focused on the qualitative examination of biological processes. This is increasingly proving insufficient today. The growing complexity of research topics, the recording and prediction of dynamic processes and their integration in a systemic concept require the large-scale generation and processing of quantitative data. The different levels of the genome, epigenome, proteome and metabolome must be studied in detail and seen in an overall context if we are to understand the regulation and control of biological processes.
Systems biology has developed as a highly efficient approach since the beginning of the 21st century. Its strengths - the solution-oriented combination of expertise in various disciplines, the use of the synergies produced and a clear, holistic approach - are the basis for its successful expansion. Exchanges between modelling exercises and experiments are producing realistic predictions which can hasten applications in health research and the bioeconomy. German researchers have a top place in a scientific community that is well-networked throughout the world and are thus enhancing Germany's reputation as a prime location for research and business.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) recognized the potential of systems biology at an early stage and introduced the funding measure Systems of Life - Systems Biology to address this area. The HepatoSys Competence Network, which deals with the generation of standards, methods and know how on the way to producing a "virtual liver cell", was established under this funding measure. In turn, the Virtual Liver Network with its mission to replicate the physiology, morphology and function of the human liver was set up in 2010 on the basis of the competence network.
Further funding measures are aimed at establishing centres which will unite the necessary interdisciplinary expertise and technologies under one roof and thus make it possible to train systems biologists. Four such Research Units for Systems Biology (FORSYS) involving Länder participation have been set up since 2007 - in Magdeburg (MaCS), Heidelberg (ViroQuant), Potsdam-Golm (GoFORSYS) and Freiburg (FRISYS). In addition, the FORSYS Partners project is an accompanying measure involving cooperation projects and junior research groups that make use of and complement the expertise of the research units.
The call for proposals entitled Quantitative Analysis to Describe the Dynamic Processes in Living Systems (Quantpro, 2006) and the related funding measure New Methods in Systems Biology (SysTec, 2009) focus on the high methodical and technological demands of the systems biology approach.
There are fields of application for systems biology everywhere in the life sciences, particularly in biomedical research. The latter's complexity means that it is no longer possible to explain the various life processes and different disease mechanisms without the aid of mathematical modelling. The BMBF has contributed significantly to progress in this area by establishing the funding measures: Medical Systems Biology (MedSys, 2009), Systems Biology in Cancer Research (CancerSys, 2011) and Systems Biology of Health in Old Age (GerontoSys I & II, 2010 & 2011). The latter is devoted in particular to understanding general ageing processes and is thus tackling the challenges of an ageing society.
The potential and advantages of the systems biology approach to research in Germany do not only apply to biomedical aspects but also to the field of bioeconomy. The Systems Biology in BioEnergy (BioEnergieSys, 2008) activity and the transnational funding programmes Systems Biology in Microorganisms (SysMO I & II, 2006 & 2009) and Application of the Systems Biology Research Approach in Biomedicine and Other Fields of Innovation (ERASysBio+, 2009) support innovative projects which provide contributions to bioenergy, biotechnology and agriculture. The latter enable German researchers to network with colleagues throughout the world, particularly in the European Research Area.
The BMBF will pool activities in systems biology under the brand of e:Bio - Innovations Competition Systems Biology. It will continue to strengthen Germany's position as a leading location for systems biology against the background of the missions and fields of action of the Health Research Framework Programme and the National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030.