UC has introduced a visionary PhD program that will train tomorrow's scientists to analyze and apply the burgeoning amounts of biological data now being provided by genetic research.
The first in the Midwest, the new doctorate in systems biology and physiology will take science education into ̉the post-genomic era," says program director Nelson Horseman, PhD, professor of molecular and cellular physiology.
"Genetic scientists are delivering more and more information," says Dr. Horseman. "Our job is to understand how it works in the context of complex biological systems, and ultimately the human body.
"Knowing the human genome is like knowing the thousands of components of an automobile," he explains. "You have to understand how they're connected, and how they affect each other. It's not enough just to know you have a gas pedal-you have to know its effect on the engine.
"In science we might know the genomics, but if that's all we know, we'll miss something surprising about how systems function'until we analyze them."
The goal of the systems biology and physiology PhD program, Dr. Horseman says, is to combine the latest research tools, "all essentially driven by a vast amount of computer power,"and bring them to bear on the questions scientists are asking.
The tools'which include DNA sequencing, data base research, gene expression profiling, high-throughput biological assay and multiphoton microscopy-are available in a number of different UC labs.
"Using several of these techniques," Dr. Horseman says, "we found that serotonin, a chemical usually associated with the brain and known to be involved in controlling blood pressure, is also produced in the breasts-where it affects milk production. We're now trying to determine if it can be used to increase milk output in cows.
"This is just one example of how a program like this will influence the future quality of life."
The physical sciences have always been more quantitative, formal and theoretical in their approach to knowledge, Dr. Horseman says. The biological sciences, on the other hand, have been more descriptive.
"With this new PhD program we're moving the biological sciences to the same level the physical sciences have been on for 100 years," he says.
"Our vision of the future of biology and technology is that it will be like the current relationship between physics and engineering, but we want to achieve that in less than 100 years!
"You can compare what we're doing with aeronautics," he explains. "Aircraft designers no longer test wings in wind tunnels. They already know they'll work. Now they assemble all the components of the airplane's systems and test them on a computer before they fly the plane the first time.
"Biology isn't anywhere near that yet. But this is what the future will be. At some point we'll have the same kind of knowledge about interacting biological systems-starting with bacteria and then on to the human being-as engineers have about airplanes.
"When we understand that well enough, we'll be able to model biological systems on computers and know which component is working properly, and fix it if it's not.
"Genome science is giving us lots of raw material that we might need to do this," Dr. Horseman says, "but doesn't tell us anything about how they would work together. This program and others like it will change that."
UC's systems biology and physiology doctoral program, which started in January, is believed to be one of only half a dozen in the country.
For more information on the program, call (513) 558-2536, visit www.med.uc.edu/sbp or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.