This paper reflects ideas that were presented as part of the 2011 Adolph Lecture at the Experimental Biology meeting that was held in Washington, DC. The goal of the talk was to share a physiologist’s perspective on what reductionism in general and the “omic” revolution in particular has or has not done for biomedical research and associated therapeutic insights or advances. The main ideas highlighted in the lecture were the following.
1) Reductionism via various flavors of molecular biology and “omics” has so far failed to deliver its self-promoted revolution in clinical medicine.
2) Systems biology has a cell-centric focus that is marked by a limited understanding of and application to biology beyond the cell.
3) The failure of systems biology to recognize and use key concepts from physiology about homeostasis, regulation, redundancy, feedback control, and acclimation/adaptation are major limitations to this poorly defined approach.
4) While all the attention has been focused on reductionism and more recently systems biology, physiology continues to provide important biomedical insights that lead to therapeutic advances.
As the title demonstrates, my goal in the Adolph Lecture and in this paper was and is to be intentionally provocative and hopefully generate a dialogue with the reductionists. In this context, and because I am “taking sides”, I have adopted what might be called a conversational approach to this paper.