Systems biology is defined in this review as 'an iterative process of computational model building and experimental model revision with the aim of understanding or simulating complex biological systems'. We propose that, in practice, systems biology rests on three pillars: computation, the omics disciplines and repeated experimental perturbation of the system of interest. The number of ethical and physiologically relevant perturbations that can be used in experiments on healthy humans is extremely limited and principally comprises exercise, nutrition, infusions (e.g. Intralipid), some drugs and altered environment. Thus, we argue that systems biology and environmental physiology are natural symbionts for those interested in a system-level understanding of human biology. However, despite excellent progress in high-altitude genetics and several proteomics studies, systems biology research into human adaptation to extreme environments is in its infancy. A brief description and overview of systems biology in its current guise is given, followed by a mini review of computational methods used for modelling biological systems. Special attention is given to high-altitude research, metabolic network reconstruction and constraint-based modelling. © 2013 Edwards and Thiele; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
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