University Research Priority Program Systems Biology/Functional Genomics

The URPP Systems Biology/Functional Genomics was created with the idea of building on the foundations of systems biology in Zurich, which were laid in 2001 by establishing the Functional Genomics Center Zurich (FGCZ) as a joint venture of the University of Zurich (UZH) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ).

The goal of this University Research Priority Program (URPP) is to consolidate the position of the FGCZ as a key infrastructure of systems biology in Zurich, to bring to Zurich a new generation of scientists active in the field of systems biology, to support their education in the form of postgraduate courses and to initiate new research programs in systems biology.

Together with its partner, the ETHZ, the University of Zurich is well positioned to assume a leading role in the field of systems biology. It has a strong background in function-based genetic studies of model organisms and a long-standing tradition of molecular biology and molecular medicine.

What is Systems Biology?

To date, biological research has concentrated on the analysis of isolated pathways or gene networks. In the past ten years, it has become increasingly clear that many biological processes are highly conserved from bacteria to man and that they are interconnected; this implies that they influence each other. The availability of the complete genome sequences of several organisms, both mono- and multicellular, combined with technological advances that permit the analysis of changes in the levels of mRNA, proteins, metabolites and post-translational modifications, will allow a quantitative description of biological processes at the level of single cells, organs and ultimately entire organisms. The enormous complexity of this task demands the creation of a new, multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving: Systems biology. This novel branch of biological research critically depends of three factors: (i) a solid basis in function-based biological approaches, (ii) a collaboration between different scientific disciplines ranging from biology and chemistry to mathematics, informatics and physics, and (iii) an investment in the development of novel technologies capable of gathering and analyzing the enormous volumes of different kinds of data generated in the diverse experimental systems.

Brief History of Systems Biology in Zurich

Scientists in Zürich reacted very rapidly to the appearance of transcriptomic and proteomic technologies that arrived on the heels of numerous genomic sequencing efforts. With the generous support of the University and of the Kinderspital, the first Functional Genomics Unit was established in August Forel-Strasse. A few months later, a much larger project was initiated, which culminated in the creation of a joint technology platform of the University and the ETHZ, the Functional Genomics Center Zurich. Thanks to the commitment of substantial funds from the ETH SEP initiative, as well as to the generous support of the University, the facility currently occupies 1200 m2 of laboratory and office space at the Irchel Campus and houses 36 staff and cutting-edge technology worth CHF 25 Million.

The University has also played a leading role in bringing to Zurich one of the founders of systems biology, Ruedi Aebersold. His appointment as a visiting professor at the Faculty of Sciences opened the doors to further negotiations, with the result that Ruedi Aebersold joined the Zurich biological community at the end of 2004 as full professor and head of the Biotechnology/ Systems Biology Institute of the ETHZ.