ABC Course: Analysis of Biological Complexity



By covering a wide range of biological processes, the ABC course aims to give students from non-biological backgrounds a rapid introduction to complex biological systems and to encourage students with a background in the life sciences to look at biology in new ways. By the end of the course students should aim to develop an intuition for the behaviour of living systems and processes at a range of scales.

While it can be argued that biology differs from physics in having only one universally applicable principle, evolution, research over the past 100 years has revealed a large number of general rules that can be used as guides to help researchers make progress in understanding extraordinarily complex and diverse biological systems. The course aims to touch on many of these ideas:

  1. DNA -> RNA -> protein
  2. biological processes are carried out far from equilibrium and are driven by a continual flux of energy passing through the system
  3. the essential unit of life is the cell
  4. cells are the bricks, builders and architects of multicellular systems
  5. biological complexity is generated gradually through self-organisation and through the reiterative action of a few simple processes
  6. biological systems are inherently noisy and are robust to specific types of genetic and environmental noise
  7. biological systems are not optimal because they evolve gradually under selection for a variety of factors including function, efficiency, robustness and evolvability
  8. biological systems are modular
  9. biological systems are extraordinarily diverse and a case can almost always be found that breaks any given general rule
  10. all organisms on planet earth have descended by a process of evolution from one original cell
  11. all life processes are physical and chemical processes

Following a series of basic introductory tutorials in the first week, which includes a discussion of the difficulties of modelling complex systems, students will receive interactive tutorials given by leaders in each field, each of whom will emphasize the important questions in the field and the tools and tricks researchers use to get at these problems. In many cases this will include systems approaches that combine experiment and modelling.

The tutorials are as follows:

  • Systems Biology, Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life (5)                                           
  • The genomic, epigenome  and metabolome (4)
  • Evolution (3)                                                          
  • Cell Biology and Cancer Biology (2)                                            
  • Time and Space in Development  (5)                                                             
  • Physics of Living Systems  (3)                         
  • Immunology (1)
  • The Brain (3)  
  • Sensory Systems (2)
  • The Heart (3)                          


All the MRes students are expected to actively participate in each tutorial and to look at suggested texts or online material beforehand.

CoMPLEX runs a seminar programme throughout the year which students are expected to attend. After each seminar for the MRes students to host the speaker for a drink at the Print room Cafe. This provides an important opportunity for students to meet with many of the best scientists in the world who are working at the interface between the mathematical/physical and life sciences.

Download: ABC Course Guidelines (pdf)

Page last modified on 24 nov 10 13:48