Not just 1 or 2 molecules, but 100s to 100,000s of different types of proteins, define the behavior of a single cell, and in turn, trillions of cells contribute to an individual’s health. How do scientists make sense of this complexity?
First, we embrace the complexity, putting a priority on understanding biological function and how the material composition is designed to achieve this function rather than focusing on a single molecule or cell type.
An analogy is that instead of just looking at the composition of bark in a single tree, we also ask how is the forest organized. How does the environment (the soil, location & type of other plants, sunlight, weather) around that one tree influence its growth & health, and what is it about the design of the bark that enables the tree to thrive in its environment?
For human cells, this means we design experiments in the lab to observe how cells interact with their neighboring cells; and develop computer-based tools to identify functional patterns of genes, proteins and metabolites that enable the cells to behave in specific ways. We also relate these findings to the big picture – how what we’re observing in cells reflects the health and activities of the humans from which they came.