Biologists, Physicists Cooperate on the Mystery of Cooperation

    For the next few weeks I’ll be writing from the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at U.C. Santa Barbara. I’m on a fellowship here, and while some of my time will be focused on theoretical physics, I’m concentrating on a cross-disciplinary program they’re holding this month and next on the evolution of cooperation.

    The full title is “cooperation and the evolution of multicellularity”. There’s a lot we don’t know about how and why life thrived on Earth as single-celled bacteria and algae for more than 2 billon years, and then suddenly the cells started to cooperate and assemble themselves into complicated organisms.

    Other levels of organization enter into the picture. Here’s what the website for the program has to say:

    Genes organize into genomes, cells into multicellular organisms, organisms into institutions and societies, and species into ecologies. While deep analogies between mechanisms at one such level of organization and mechanisms at another level suggest themselves, general organizing principles have often been greeted with controversy.

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    The origin of cooperation is the kind of question creationists like to answer with an act of the almighty, but that just cuts off the chance to investigate. I’ve only been here for a day and I’ve already learned that people studying the evolution of cooperating cells are discovering new insights into the way cancer arises and spreads. Cancer is a sort of breakdown in the way you cells cooperate, but once a tumor starts to grow, the cancer cells cooperate with each other.

    Studying our cooperating cells is leading others to reconsider the way certain toxic substances affect the liver and the brain. The scientists here are themselves cooperating across disciplines. While some of them are biologists, many of the people here for the multicellularity program are physicists.

    Yesterday, biologist Michael Lynch from the University of Indiana talked about mutations. These are genetic “mistakes” necessary for diversity, and without diversity, natural selection would have nothing to select from. If plants and animals were all identical, there would be no way for evolution to work.

    In his lab, Lynch is trying to find out why mutations happen at the rates they do and whether natural selection can dial up or down the rate of these mutations. He removes the force of natural selection on worms and various types of bacteria by separating out new mutants so they don’t have to compete with the rest of the population.

    I more complete post on his work is coming soon.

    Also coming soon is Higgs. He bravely flew across the country and is now staying about two hours away in Long Beach. He will join me here in Santa Barbara this weekend and begin blogging for Lightning Rod next week.

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