Biology's Next Big Bang, Part 1 of 2

Photo of Chao Tang

Chao Tang

Scientists know a lot about the history of science. Is that so surprising? Perhaps not, but when you think about it, how many investment bankers know much about the history of money, or politicians, the history of government, or car dealers, the history of the automobile?

Chao Tang, PhD, a professor in the UCSF School of Pharmacy's Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences, as well as a QB3 faculty affiliate, understands the power of history very well. Born in China's Jiangxi province and raised during the Cultural Revolution, he grew up in a world where formal schooling was denigrated and most books banned. "It was a big disaster. I didn't learn much," he concedes. Science books were an exception to the ban, though, and the young Tang took a particular shine to one roughly translated as the 100,000 Why's.

Tang has long since graduated from the "Why is the sky blue?" chapter, thanks in large part to the 1977 decision to reopen Chinese universities, where he excelled. But 25 years after coming to the University of Chicago as part of a special physics program for Chinese scholars, his curiosity and hunger for knowledge remain knife-edge sharp. Now an acknowledged authority on the emerging field of systems biology — broadly defined as the study of the collective behavior of individual interacting biological components — Tang speaks with insight and obvious excitement about some of his heroes, namely Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Isaac Newton.

Kepler, Brahe and Newton? What relevance could they possibly have to 21st-century biological physics? Simple. Tang sees in their revolutionary astronomical discoveries about the orbits of planets and the universal laws of motion the same kind of cosmic explosion about to overtake biology.

"In Kepler's time, there were lots and lots of data about the motions of stars and planets. People tried to build models explaining the circular orbits of the planets," says Tang. Try as they might, the imprecise data could only suggest that each planet had its own laws of motion.

"That changed when the Danish-born Tycho Brahe's carefully calibrated instruments provided accurate measurements of planetary movements." It was left to Kepler, his German assistant and protégé, to unify all the data and postulate his three laws of planetary motion, including his most famous: Planets travel in elliptical orbits, not circular ones.

Newton's laws of motion and gravity came later, and were brilliantly generalized extensions of what Kepler, Brahe, Galileo and others had discovered.

So does Tang fancy himself a Kepler or a Newton? The father of two is far too modest for that kind of self-crowning. "Biology is in a similar stage as astronomy was in the 1600s. We have improved technology, more and more data, and better understanding of biological systems. I'm not sure if we will be able to develop a general Newtonian-like equation for cells. But something big is about to happen, and my dream is to be part of it."

Some might argue that he already is. Tang, who holds two professorial appointments, one at UCSF and the other at Peking University, where he works several months per year, enjoys precision. He knows that in the vast array of interacting biological networks — gene regulation systems would be one example, neurons still another — we are alive and well only because evolution has a similar taste for the exact. Yet exact is not the same as rigid or fixed. As structures, individual neurons may be static, but networks of neurons are anything but. Or, as Tang explains, "Biological systems have to be reliable and robust if they are to work correctly in a changing environment."

To understand what is going on requires both theoretical models and quantitative methods. In other words, Tang needs to think, test, measure and evaluate. "Our biological systems are like a society, a community. They talk. They interact. They have friends and enemies. But it's not obvious just by studying individual genes or proteins. That's the gap systems biology is trying to fill."

Next time: Chao Tang, nonlinear dynamic systems and the importance of play.

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Related Links

Tang Lab
Peking University Center for Theoretical Biology
Li Foundation Funds Chinese Scholars to Study Systems Biology at UCSF
News Release, October 9, 2006
Kepler's Laws
The Galileo Project:
Tycho Brahe
100,000 Why's
(Chinese) Wikipedia