The route

So much about the vision - what about the route? The Physiome Project will - like the Genome and Visible Human projects - crucially depend on the ability to develop the necessary tools for its own successful implementation. Apart from obtaining useful data and building representative databases, this primarily includes the capacity to devise appropriate algorithms to model physiological function.

The concise Oxford dictionary of current English defines a model as 'a simplified . . . description of a system etc., to assist calculations and predictions'. One can apply this definition in its wider sense to any intellectual activity (or its product) that tries to make out the components of a system and to predict the outcome of their interaction. Thus, to think is to model (beware, though, that the reverse is not necessarily true).

To implement the Physiome Project, a lot of 'good science' (Wolpert) and 'thinking' (Dover) will be required. The tools that will ultimately define the success of the project are analytical models of biological processes that have predictive power - virtual cells, tissues, organs and systems.

This will extend, and partially replace, the traditional approach to biomedical research that is based on studying living cells or tissues in vitro, or on obtaining data from human volunteers in vivo, by introducing 'in silico' experiments (a term, derived from the currently prevailing silicon-based computer chips).

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