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Systems Biology at MIT: It s All Over the Place

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 9 - When MIT President Chuck Vest says that the language of biology is sounding 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 here today, 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 said, with the greater goal of understanding the regulation of biological functions as complex biomolecular circuits.


Speaking earlier in the day at the opening of the first annual CSBi conference, Douglas Lauffenburger, co-director of MIT's biological engineering division, said the program emphasizes experimental measurement approaches and will encourage the automation of current methods and the invention of new devices for generating high-throughput dynamic measurements of biological systems. Faculty presenting during the first day of the two-day event, which attracted 500 attendees, described efforts ranging from cancer research to cognitive science, from materials science to MEMs. 


Members of the CSBi executive committee, including Lauffenburger, John Guttag, head of the department of computer science and electrical engineering, and Leona Samson, director of MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, said they are seeking industry collaborators and anticipate attracting government and foundation resources, too. (To date, CSBi has received funding only from within the university--specifically, from the schools of engineering and science, including direct contributions from the departments of biology, electrical engineering, and computer science.)


Though Vest told GenomeWeb 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. Guttag 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 said.

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