As our knowledge of the molecular ‘parts list’ of cells matures, we now seek to understand how these parts interact to form fully functional biological systems.

Incorporating elements of computational biology, mathematics and engineering, Systems Biology is a multi-disciplinary study of genes and proteins and small molecules as a series of interconnected networks and pathways. These complex systems exhibit interactions and also emergent properties that can be closely examined and contextualised.

Our research adopts a holistic approach to build in-depth profiles, molecular roadmaps and mathematical models of the cell. So that we can better understand how life is organised and how it changes during development, ageing, disease and in response to the environment.

With ties to biotechnology, pharmaceutical and chemical industries, UNSW Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences encourages collaborative research. We foster an environment of discovery for students and researchers to use advanced ‘omics techniques such as mass spectrometry and next-generation sequencing – including single-cell techniques. These approaches are supplemented by powerful statistical and computational methods, involving bioinformatics and deep learning technologies.

Previous projects have explored the construction and analysis of protein interactions and integrated metabolic networks; the linking of gene and protein expression data to phenotype; the analysis of RNA-sequence data for gene expression analysis; and investigations into the regulatory role of protein post-translational modifications in the networks.

The Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics is our state-of-the-art centre and at the forefront of research in genomics. Together with NSW Systems Biology Initiative, UNSW hosts one of the first research integrated workplaces for molecular systems biology for Australia. Both the Centre and Initiative are directed by Professor Marc Wilkins, whose achievements include developing the concept of the ‘proteome’ and coining the term.

Application to wine ferments

The Ramaciotti Centre and Systems Biology Initiative recently applied its expertise to projects with the Australian Wine Research Institute. It required integrative analysis of gene expression, proteomic and metabolomic data to biochemically model changes in yeasts during wine ferments. The models were used to engineer improved strains of yeast for the generation of low alcohol wines.

Benefits of Systems Biology 

Systems Biology is of great importance to drug discovery, helping to develop drugs which are better targeted to specific parts of networks and have lower side effects. It is also of fundamental importance for the understanding of the disease, as increasing numbers of pathologies are found to be caused by the loss or gain of important molecular interactions.

For microbes, Systems Biology will provide novel avenues for the development of antibiotics. In crop plants, it promises to assist the engineering and selective breeding of new, high-value traits.