Why are fast–slow oscillations ubiquitous in biology? We can think of this as homeostasis of a higher order. Biology is replete with negative feedback. Almost every reaction is inhibited directly or indirectly by its product, which prevents concentrations from running out of narrow bounds. However, if the feedback is slow and some source of positive feedback is available, the system can undergo transients before returning to rest, and under the right conditions, this can result in repeated oscillations. When these oscillations are useful, they can be fixed by evolution.
None of the ideas presented here are new. They are old hat to mathematical biologists although little known to nonmathematical biologists. Physiology, especially electrophysiology, has had a long symbiotic relationship with dynamic modeling because of the early development of techniques for monitoring time-dependent behavior with high time resolution. There was not much of a field of calcium modeling before the invention of imaging techniques, which revealed a wealth of dynamic phenomena such as oscillations and waves. When experimentalists turned to theorists for help in understanding these phenomena, a large repertoire of models was ready-to-hand to help out that was further enriched by new examples and by the challenge of integrating the calcium and electrical subsystems in cells.
As biology forges ahead and live cell–imaging techniques reveal the temporal complexity of more and more cell-signaling mechanisms, dynamical systems theory will be essential. Luckily, there are many accessible sources aimed at bringing this theory within the grasp of experimentalists (Keener and Sneyd, 1998; Rinzel and Ermentrout, 1998; Fall et al., 2002; Tyson et al., 2003; Izhikevich, 2010) and many theorists with the deep grounding in biology needed to lend a hand. Even if your own work has yet to be touched by these developments, be on the lookout: they are coming to a biological system near you.