The Challenges in the field of Evolutionary Systems Biology

Applying systems and mechanistic approaches to understand evolution

As the fourth Evolutionary Systems Biology conference approaches, we caught up with Professors Trisha Wittkopp and Brandon Ogbunu – two members of the scientific programme committee – to discuss the challenges in this cross-disciplinary field, their advice to early career researchers, and the exciting aspects of this conference series.

Brandon Ogbunu Photo
Professor Brandon Ogbunu – ESB 2022 Committee Member
Trisha Wittkopp Photo
Professor Trisha Wittkopp – ESB 2022 Committee Member

Evolutionary Systems Biology has emerged from a variety of perspectives and methods. How do you define this broad multidisciplinary approach?

Trisha: Evolutionary systems biology is the rich interface between studies designed to understand how complex biological systems work, and those investigating the evolutionary processes that gave rise to these systems and affect how they evolve. It sits at the intersection of molecular and developmental biology, functional genomics, evolution, and ecology. Findings from this field have relevance for understanding basic biology as well as applications in medicine, agriculture, and other fields.

Brandon: Whether one uses mathematical formalism or computational tools, or not, evolutionary systems biology is driven by the use of “models” that contain interacting parcels of biological information (e.g., cells, DNA, proteins) to address evolutionary questions.

What are the main benefits of integrating systems biology into an evolutionary framework?

Trisha: Current biological systems are the result of evolutionary processes and also the context in which future evolution occurs. Evolutionary systems biology embraces these connections, using a variety of scientific approaches to investigate biological systems at multiple levels, while also thinking about how they came to be and how they might constrain or promote particular changes in the future.

Brandon: Even though biological systems work in ways that fascinate us, they did not arise by magic. They are the product of the forces of evolution, and are often crafted by natural selection. Consequently, understanding the nature of biological complexity requires an evolutionary lens.

What are the challenges and limitations in evolutionary systems biology research?

Trisha: As with all studies of evolutionary biology, we are generally trying to understand the past by looking at the present, which has inherent challenges. In addition, being able to describe biological systems from enough different angles to understand the whole remains challenging. For example, we have great tools now for connecting genetic variation to variation in gene expression and higher-order phenotypes, but it remains challenging to understand how the changes at the molecular level relate to those higher-order phenotypes – in most cases.

Brandon: While technology has been the institution that has opened the most doors, it continues to be the limit on asking certain questions. That is, even though evolutionary systems biology might utilise models, it still requires observations. And technology gives us the opportunity to make those observations.

What is your advice to young researchers wanting to enter this field?

Trisha: Read broadly, connect with researchers outside your primary discipline, and challenge yourself to see your work and what it can add to the field from multiple perspectives. One of the challenges with interdisciplinary work is that different fields have different customs and scientific languages. Interacting with others, especially outside your primary lab and department, can help you learn these differences and how to communicate effectively with different groups despite them.

Brandon: Stay on top of the latest methods being used to ask cutting-edge questions in biology, and especially learn how the data are analysed. This will allow you to bring new tools into new fields. Ask important new questions!

What is the future of evolutionary systems biology? What developments do you expect in the future of the field?

Trisha: I hope the field will progress simultaneously on two fronts:

(i) continue generating new tools that let us “see” biological systems in new ways and

(ii) expand the theory and tools needed to integrate this new experimental data and the knowledge that comes from it with the rich models of theoretical evolution that were developed largely in the absence of this molecular understanding.

Can you tell us about a favourite moment/reflection from the previous Evolutionary Systems Biology conferences?

Trisha: What I love about this conference is that it brings together people with common interests but diverse disciplines that are not very often gathered in the same place to discuss these topics. Being able to see the common threads between presentations on evolutionary theory, quantitative genetics, evolutionary developmental biology, and infectious disease or cancer biology and discussing these commonalities with the researchers is exciting and stimulating.

What is exciting about the 2022 conference?

Trisha: Because evolutionary systems biology is such an interdisciplinary endeavour, each new set of organizers brings a slightly different perspective on what the conference will focus on. For example, with Brandon Ogbunu and Juliette de Meaux joining the organizational team for the first time this year, they have brought ideas that expanded the representation of infectious disease and ecological genetics in the meeting. I’m also excited about this year’s stellar group of invited speakers, which I believe is more diverse (on multiple axes) and features more outstanding scientists at earlier career stages among our invited speakers than in prior years.

Brandon: The number of organisms, biological problems, and approaches! I think that it represents progress in the reach of evolutionary systems biology. It is very exciting.

You can hear more from Trisha Wittkopp and Brandon Ogbunu at our Evolutionary Systems Biology Conference on 9 – 11 February 2022. The conference will focus on the evolution of biological systems at different levels: genes, molecules and systems. It will also explore protein evolution, how microbes adapt to their environment, quantitative genetics, and the impact of evolutionary change on human health (download the programme here.)

In addition, the meeting will provide online discussion and networking opportunities for scientists working across disciplines related to evolution, developmental biology, quantitative genetics and systems biology. Registration closes on 2 February 2022.

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