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WIREs Syst Biol Med
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Complexity and the reductionism–holism debate in systems biology

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Abstract Reductionism has largely influenced the development of science, culminating in its application to molecular biology. An increasing number of novel research findings have, however, shattered this view, showing how the molecular‐reductionist approach cannot entirely handle the complexity of biological systems. Within this framework, the advent of systems biology as a new and more integrative field of research is described, along with the form which has taken on the debate of reductionism versus holism. Such an issue occupies a central position in systems biology, and nonetheless it is not always clearly delineated. This partly occurs because different dimensions (ontological, epistemological, methodological) are involved, and yet the concerned ones often remain unspecified. Besides, within systems biology different streams can be distinguished depending on the degree of commitment to embrace genuine systemic principles. Some useful insights into the future development of this discipline might be gained from the tradition of complexity and self‐organization. This is especially true with regards the idea of self‐reference, which incorporated into the organizational scheme is able to generate autonomy as an emergent property of the biological whole. WIREs Syst Biol Med 2012. doi: 10.1002/wsbm.1181 This article is categorized under: Analytical and Computational Methods > Dynamical Methods Models of Systems Properties and Processes > Mechanistic Models

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The contribution of reductionist and holistic (antireductionist) methodologies to the mechanistic explanation of increasing complex biological phenomena. The kind (linear or nonlinear) of process is illustrated in the lower x‐axis. The kind of system the processes are part of (aggregative, component, or integrative) is indicated in the middle x‐axis. The degree of biocomplexity of biological phenomena is ranked in the upper x‐axis (number 1–11). The left and right y‐axis portray the contribution (in percentages) of reductionist and holistic methodologies, respectively, to a research program aiming to mechanistically explain a biological phenomenon exhibiting a given degree of complexity. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 26. Copyright 2002 Taylor and Francis Ltd., http://www.tandfonline.com)

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The epigenetic control pathway of gene expression as circular (including bidirectional causal influences) and dynamic (open to environment).

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The linear causal pathway implied in the central dogma of molecular biology.

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A minimal version of the circular organizational scheme of an autopoietic system. This is defined as a unity “as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (1) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (2) constitute () a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network” (Ref 120, p. 79).

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Models of Systems Properties and Processes > Mechanistic Models
Analytical and Computational Methods > Dynamical Methods

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