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Systems Biology

Subject Summary: Part III Systems Biology

Systems Biology is an integrated approach to the study of living systems. It is quintessentially interdisciplinary with participation of biological, physical, mathematical, engineering and computational sciences. The emerging discipline is concerned as much with the links that connect components of a network as with the components themselves. A major focus is the determination of how the properties of networks arise from all their constituent links.  A second strand focuses on the collection of detailed highly quantitative data from smaller systems with the goal of developing predictive mathematical descriptions of systems behaviour.  Ultimately these strands will converge to provide accurate mathematical models of biological processes. 

Students will take the following modules as part of this course: 

1) Induction Course: This aims to introduce a group of students from a range of backgrounds in the biological and physical sciences, mathematics, computer science, and engineering to the basic concepts, theories, and modelling and experimental techniques of Systems Biology. 

2) Data Acquisition and Handling: This module will present the techniques used to acquire data in the various ‘omics’ approaches (transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics), as well as in high-throughput genetics.  The module will emphasise the practical aspects of the challenges in dealing with large amounts of data and their experimental limitations. 

3) Mathematical Modelling and Analysis of Networks: This module will look at computer-based network modelling and analysis, embodying tools of mathematics, informatics and statistics. 

4) Synthetic and Executable Biology: The synthetic biology approach will be introduced, as will the practice of modelling by simulation using computational techniques. This module will include a focused design project in which the design is evaluated by in silico simulation. 

In addition to the above courses, which will incorporate lectures and practical classes, students will be required to attend regular seminars during term, and carry out a research project in Michaelmas and Lent. 

Programme Specification: Part III Systems Biology

The Schools to be involved in delivering the taught parts of the Course include: Biological Sciences (Departments of Biochemistry, Genetics, Pathology, Plant Sciences and the Sainsbury Laboratory); Physical Sciences (DAMTP); Technology (Department of Engineering). Additional material will be contributed by external Institutes which may include: the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI); MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB); CR-UK Cambridge Research Institute (CRI); Microsoft Research.


  1. To acquaint students with backgrounds in the biological, physical, mathematical or computational sciences with the concepts and techniques of each others' disciplines that are relevant to an integrated approach to the study of living systems.
  2. To equip students with the skills to generate comprehensive biological data sets, analyse them using appropriate statistical techniques, and use such data to generate mathematical or computational models of biological systems with predictive and explanatory power.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course a student should be able to:

  1. demonstrate advanced knowledge and understanding of the biological, computational, engineering, mathematical, and physical sciences relevant to the integrative study of living systems;
  2. demonstrate knowledge of the objectives, methods, and efficacy of their design project by presenting a computer simulation of the implementation of their design to their peers and academic staff;
  3. demonstrate knowledge of the objectives, methods, results, and conclusions of their research project by means of interim and final presentations to their peers and academic staff;
  4. demonstrate knowledge of the written presentation of research through the production of a report on their research project;
  5. analyse critically research literature and contemporary topics in systems and synthetic biology, and present such analyses in written and oral formats;
  6. adopt a model-building approach to the analysis of large-scale experimental data;
  7. explain the importance and impact of topics in systems and synthetic biology to both non-specialists in the natural sciences and engineering and to the lay public;
  8. demonstrate cutting-edge computational and experimental techniques relevant to systems biology.

Teaching and learning methods

These include an Introductory and three specialist taught modules. Each module will comprise both formal lectures and computer-based examples and practical classes. One of the specialist modules will include a design project. Weekly discussion groups will include Journal Club presentations by students and seminars from external speakers. A 12-week research project will be run in the Michaelmas and Lent terms.


Course performance is assessed on the basis of:

  • three written papers; one paper of three and one quarter hours, one paper of three hours and one paper of two hours (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 1,5, 6, 7);
  • a computer based practical examination of three hours;
  • a practical report of a design project (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 2, 6, 8);
  • a report of a research project of not more than 6,000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 3-6, 8)

Courses of Preparation

For details of entry criteria, please see The Fourth Year - Part III.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.