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Systems Biology At MIT, All Systems Go for New Comp/bio Initiative


When MIT president Chuck Vest says that the language of biology sounds increasingly like the language of systems engineering, he’s not just using public-speech hyperbole.

At last count, 103 of the 341 faculty in MIT’s engineering school — and we’re talking aeronautic, astronautic, chemical, civil, electrical, environmental, materials science, mechanical, and nuclear engineering — were using the term “bio” to describe the nature of their research.

At a luncheon for 175 invited guests in the MIT faculty club in early January, Vest gave a plug for the institute’s nascent Computational and Systems Biology Initiative, an interdisciplinary program that will facilitate cross-fertilization among all of MIT’s bio-interested faculty and students, whether they be engineers or in the departments of biology, chemistry, computer science, or physics.

The program, known around campus as CSBi (pronounced “siz-bee”), will enroll its first class of PhD candidates this fall. It will encourage research in areas such as device fabrication, instrumentation design, and “synthetic biology,” Vest says, with the greater goal of understanding the regulation of biological functions as complex biomolecular circuits.

Though Vest told GT there is no exact dollar amount the school seeks to raise for the program, the CSBi committee said its needs are significantly smaller than the $200 million figure that Lee Hood estimated he’d need two years ago to launch the Institute for Systems Biology. Nor does the committee seem discouraged by the news that Hood has not succeeded in raising anything close to that amount. CSBi executive committee member John Guttag, head of the department of computer science and electrical engineering, noted that MIT’s program is distinguished from Hood’s in several ways: It does not require new construction or new faculty hires, and it is not built around the vision of one person, he says.

— Adrienne Burke


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