Molecular biologists are prodigious napkin users. We doodle. In the molecular biologist’s mind, enzymes and regulatory proteins look like roundish blobs, DNA and RNA are straight lines, and genes are boxes on top of the straight lines. Curved lines with arrows on their ends indicate relationships between these components: this protein stimulates that gene’s expression, the enzyme over here inhibits the one over there.
There are no standards for these symbols, so one biologist’s napkin doodle won’t be exactly the same as another biologist’s doodle of the same system. That wasn’t a big problem when researchers focused their entire careers on one or two genes, but with whole-genome sequencing now becoming routine, and gene regulation diagrams now incorporating hundreds or even thousands of components, it’s become almost impossible to understand the quirky “wiring diagrams” that now crowd the edges of every seminar speaker’s slides. We’ve outgrown the napkins.
Fortunately, someone is finally doing something about it. In the latest issue of Nature Biotechnology, a multi-institutional team of researchers presents a unified “systems biology graphical notation.” The standard isn’t perfect, or even complete, but it’s an excellent start. Now it’s up to the rest of the biology community to work on adopting it.
The journal is certainly doing its part. While most Nature content requires a subscription to view, the full text of the paper describing this standard is open-access. Click the wiring diagram to check it out.