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Climate change is driving rapid changes in the abiotic conditions of coastal marine ecosystems, prompting extensive efforts to understand and predict its continued biological effects. Indeed, there already exist myriad studies applying the traditional approaches of ecological, physiological, and molecular research to the study of climate change. However, these studies largely document pattern or test mechanism at only a single level in the biological hierarchy. We contend that a broader view is needed to make progress; a view that provides insight into the interactions and feedbacks occurring across multiple levels. This is the view of systems biology: a powerful framework for understanding how the processes occurring at some biological levels lead to predictable emergent properties at others.

Anthopleura elegantissima

Studies focusing on a single level of biological organization frequently offer little predictive value, because their subjects – genes, organisms, or species – are imbedded within complex systems of interacting factors. Gene products act within the cell’s biochemical environment, and organisms within the context of local environmental conditions. Predicting the responses of such systems following a perturbation such as climate change requires understanding the structure and dynamics of these systems. The growing field of systems biology aims to understand how interactions between different components lead to emergent properties of the systems. The systems approach is perhaps most well known from cancer research, where this approach has provided insights into the network of interacting signaling molecules that lead to inappropriate cell proliferation. While these studies have largely focused on interactions occurring at sub- cellular levels (i.e. proteins and nucleic acids), interactions occurring at larger scales (organism and species) are central factors shaping community structure and function, and are being disrupted by climate change. We believe that extending the systems approach to include these higher levels, and characterizing the structure and dynamics of these systems from genes to ecosystems, will greatly improve our understanding of biological responses to climate change in coastal marine habitats.

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Systems Science in Marine Biology