Opinion: Cooperating to Study Cooperation

Physicists and biologists are working together to understand cooperation at all levels of life, from the cohesion of molecules to interspecies interactions.

By David Smith | February 20, 2013

Volvox carteriCOURTESY OF AURORA NEDELCUPhysicists and biologists don’t usually mix, and when they do, things can get messy. But the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (KITP) is trying to change that. For more than 30 years, this prestigious research facility, which in 2007 was rated by a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as one of America’s most influential research institutes, has been pairing the world’s brightest physicists with scholars from diverse fields in an effort to answer a wide-range of scientific questions—most recently, the evolution of multicellular life.

“The reason biologists are interested in multicellular complexity is not because of an ‘in principle’ thing,” said experimentalist extraordinaire Mike Travisano of the University of Minnesota, in a lecture he gave at the workshop. “We’re interested in it because it’s proven to be an avenue for adaptation and diversification.” Travisano then showed an image of the eukaryotic tree of life, highlighting the approximately 25 independent transitions to multicellularity. “If multicellularity was an innovation,” he said, “why did it happen 25 times? Why wasn’t it just once? If it’s so great, why didn’t we get a sweep of multicellularity from a single lineage?”

These are just some of the questions the visiting scientists at KIPT are trying to answer through a 10-week workshop on cooperation at all levels of life, from the origins of multicellularity to how species and populations interact to form cooperative organizations. Some scientists, including Harvard physicist David Nelson and evolutionary biologist Joan Strassmann from Washington University, are spending weeks to months at the institute, collaborating on projects aimed at answering these fundamental questions of living organisms. And this month, these researchers and dozens of others from around the world, in fields ranging from philosophy to entomology to computer science, gathered for a 5-day conference to discuss their progress.

Travisano described his work, performed in collaboration with his postdoc Will Ratcliff, generating multicellular yeast and green algae from unicellular ones in the lab. Many researchers talked about their work with Volvox carteri and other volvocine algae—freshwater species that range in complexity from unicellular to colonial to multicellular, and are thought to represent the Rosetta stone for deciphering major evolutionary transitions in individuality. Bradley Olson, from Kansas State University, has been sequencing volvocine genomes—most recently that of the 16-celled colonial alga Gonium pectorale—and has identified candidate genes, such as cell-cycle regulators, that he believes give rise to multicellularity. In his talk, Olson described an experiment where he and his collaborators took a cell-cycle regulatory gene from a colonial alga and inserted it into a mutant unicellular one, producing a colonial morphology. This suggests that modifications to the cell cycle may be crucial for transitioning from a unicellular to a multicellular lifestyle.

Other workshop participants, such as renowned evolutionary ecologist Joan Roughgarden, are taking concepts from economics to understand cooperation within species. During her KITP seminar, Roughgarden displayed stunning photographs of courtship feeding in sea birds and nuptial gifts between copulating katydids, and then helped explain these intimate social interactions using a well-known economic theory.

And still other researchers are looking at cooperation at the sub-cellular level, investigating how proteins and nucleic acids interact to form complex structures. In his talk, Niles Lehman of Portland State University elegantly described his team’s work on ribozymes, showing how a fragmented piece of RNA can replicate itself, and giving insight the nature of our planet’s earliest replicating molecules. Similarly, Harvard biophysicist Eugene Shakhnovich and population geneticist Michael Lynch from Indiana University each presented models for the evolution of molecular cooperation. “One way to release evolutionary constraints is multicellularity,” said Shakhnovich. “It’s a way for evolution to divide labor.”

Through these and other talks—and the unofficial discussions that took place throughout the day in the institute’s hallways, lounges, and sunlit courtyard—one can’t help but feel that the study of cooperation and multicellularity is poised for major advancements, which will no doubt be forthcoming only by the collaboration of researchers from a broad range of disciplines. Ray Goldstein, a physicist from the University of Cambridge, put it best as he described his introduction to the field 8 years ago, when a PhD student in biology knocked on his door of his University of Arizona office with a question about fluid mechanics and how this might be impacting multicellularity in Volvox. Ray had never heard of Volvox, but it piqued his interest and ever since he’s been collaborating with biologists trying to unravel the physics behind multicellularity.

David Smith is a Killam Postdoctoral Scholar in the botany department at the University of British Columbia. He recently visited KITP for a weeklong conference as part of the KITP program on cooperation and multicellularity.

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Avatar of: LeeH


Posts: 35

February 21, 2013

Is cooperativity the short term exception to the second law of thermodynamics...a temporary organizing principle that permits a system to defy entropy for a short cosmic time?

Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

February 21, 2013

As a reader/thinker on philosophy of science, I have been saddened by the lack of communication between physicists and biologists.

My perception is that the status of the bio-sciences (or "life sciences") is in its infancy. This is not to say the bio-sciences are not enormously and increasingly informed. It is to not say that they have lacked brilliant synthesists who have pulled together loose ends into rationales (great sweeping hyothetical structures) that seek to explain the plethora of phenomena that must be considered to make sense of patterns of biological evolution and archeology and organic chemistry... and more. It is to say that technology enabling frontiers of physics is farther along with what it can measure (more and more by way of proxies than directly).

Biology is still discovering new organisms and processes at what is loosely referred to as the "macro" level -- meaning there is an enormous number of species not yet classified that can be observed, measured, analyzed with the naked eye, much less by an optical microscope.

Within the bio-sciences there are far more undeveloped specialties that need to be focused on.

The LIMITS of biological sciences seem to be (but are they) constrained by what goes on at the level of things that live. (Yes, the edges are blurring over into crystalography and physical organic chemistry, but much remains to be discerned and quantified and qualified within the physiologies of living things.)

Physics, in a sense, includes within its scope, processes that go on in living things, as well as non-living things. Thus, in a sense that I hope no biologist will feel slighted by, biology is but a BRANCH of physics.

At some point I predict, the bio-sciences are going to bleed over into the quantum level, and are going to be forced to seek answers to why and how some developments (including some aspects of bio-evolutionary theory) defy classical physics "laws" or "rules," now taken for granted (even as Newtonian physics was taken for granted until the latter 19th and earlier 20th centuries, as being capable of explaining everything.

As oxymoronic as it might sound to biologists, they are going -- sooner or later -- to confront at the frontiers of what they think they "know," that other sets of "rules" can, and do, prevail.

When that time comes, I predict that physicists and biologists will become far more accepting of one another.

Meanwhile, just suppose I am wrong, and that biologists will never have to cope with sets of rules that conflict with their current view of what the rules applying to living things dictate. Biology can never escape being a narrower band of the study of the veritable spectrum of "natural" phenomena than physics is constrained by.

If any conflicts are perceived, by any, between physical and biological subject matter, those are ego conflicts, and artificial perception conflicts, not conflicts between unlimited nature and itself.

February 21, 2013

Finally! I am surprised it has taken so long.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 518

February 21, 2013

In recent studies, the thermodynamics of an alanine substitution for valine and downstream nutrient-dependent epigenetic effects on de novo protein biosynthesis appear to extend from natural selection for nutrients to sexual selection for physical traits linked to both thermoregulation and nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution in a human population. Was entropy defied by a system of ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche contruction, which was required for the thermodynamically-controlled transition from physics to the H-bonds of DNA required for adaptive evolution of our socio-cognitive niche?

I don’t understand the physics but hope that someone who does will comment on the fact it appears that a short-term exception [i.e., to the second law of thermodynamics...a temporary organizing principle that permits a system to defy entropy for a short cosmic time --per LeeH] led to long term consequences manifested in adaptive evolution of multicellularity and more.  If I’m not properly addressing cause and effect, is there another model for the transition that incorporates species-wide conserved molecular mechanisms?

Everything I indicated depends on the likelihood that we  are living in our “RNA World,” not a theoretical RNA world from a theoretical past. I prefer to stick to the facts of life but don't mind learning more about physics.

Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 97

February 22, 2013

Yes! However, they accept only "brain storming" cooperation but do not agree "soul storming". I am engineer and I logically described the soul bio-communication technology.

Please, just read my research exposed in "Mitochondrial Adam DNA data transmissions theory" - ISBN 978-606-92107-1-0, not accepted by the scientists.

Abstract: Brain and soul storming - The necessary and sufficient processes to a well function of the human body are meticulous arranged by specific organizational cells, so called process bio-managers, using interconditioned procedures, transmitted through three ways of communication: chemical or “protein channel”, electrical or “ion channel” and mitochondrial or “EMF wireless channel”. The third type is out of the visible and measurable spectrum and raises a new challenge to the scientist. For this type of bio communication we bring a new theoretical hypothesis, based on the managerial multidisciplinary analysis of a cybernetic model proposed by us, by simulating the human body function with the virtual computerized system based on the management of its total knowledge and its perfect quality way of function. The main bricks used for this virtual construction are: the brain, as main bio-processor, and Eve mtDNA and Adam mtDNA, as bio-antennas. This assembly of the total knowledge, build with “brain reasoning, biological feeling, and unlimited soul feeling”, is called by us “main decision triangle, IQ-EQ-CQ”. The main principle of the management of the total knowledge imposes us to not neglect the information produced by man during the time, even if it seems creasy at the beginning (see brainstorming definition). Because in the natural fertilisation the spermatozoids are naturally equipped with the paternal mtDNA (it looks like reflex klystron power amplifier, KPA = a veritable main bio-GPS), we consider that the paternal mitochondria DNA have a very important role in the evolution of the human being life quality and we have developed a new hypothesis, “Adam mtDNA theory”, in addition to “Eve mtDNA theory”. (Keywords: brain, mitochondria, maternal, paternal)

Avatar of: Mounthell


Posts: 53

February 22, 2013

@LeeH: Yes, although it's fundamental and not "short-term" in metazoan life spans. 

@jeenious: physics exclusively deals with simple systems, and therefore, members of that discipline are most attracted to those areas of the universe which offer charismatic and romantic aspects, e.g., "fundamental," and mind-blowing, like "multiverse" and "membrane" because physics is otherwise pretty dull, it's engineering but with longer and more airy-fairy concepts.

Biology, on the other hand, addresses deeply complex phenomena that, to the untutored eye, appear simple (think of all the engineers who presume to understand biology in terms of dirt-simple technologies).  To understand biology one must get one's hands really dirty, be comfortable with ambiguity and appearing to be very stupid in the eyes of sophisticated disciplines.

Biology is no "branch" of anything except the study of extremely complex, variably and electably interacting systems most people take for granted, dismissing it as merely "life."  Is there a subdiscipline of biology that reigns?  Yes, and it ain't genetics!

Avatar of: madhupjoshimd


Posts: 16

March 26, 2013

What science needs more collaberation which might further scientific knowledge even faster & further. 


Madhup Joshi, MD

Maui, Hawaii

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