Cataloging a year of blogging: complexity in evolution, general models, and philosophy

Last month, with just hours to spare in January, I shared a linkdex of the 14 cancer-related posts from TheEGG in 2016. Now, as February runs out, it’s time to reflect on the 15 non cancer-specific posts from last year. Although, as we’ll see, some of them are still related to mathematical oncology. With a nice number like 15, I feel that I am obliged to divide them into three categories of five articles each. Which does make for a stretch in narrowing down themes.

The three themes were: (1) complexity, supply driven evolution, and abiogenesis, (2) general models and their features, (3) algorithmic philosophy and the social good.

And yes, two months have passed and all I’ve posted to the blog are two 2016-in-review posts. Even those were rushed and misshapen. But I promise there is more and better coming; hopefully with a regular schedule.

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Fusion and sex in protocells & the start of evolution

In 1864, five years after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Pyotr Kropotkin — the anarchist prince of mutual aid — was leading a geographic survey expedition aboard a dog-sleigh — a distinctly Siberian variant of the HMS Beagle. In the harsh Manchurian climate, Kropotkin did not see competition ‘red in tooth and claw’, but a flourishing of cooperation as animals banded together to survive their environment. From this, he built a theory of mutual aid as a driving factor of evolution. Among his countless observations, he noted that no matter how selfish an animal was, it still had to come together with others of its species, at least to reproduce. In this, he saw both sex and cooperation as primary evolutionary forces.

Now, Martin A. Nowak has taken up the challenge of putting cooperation as a central driver of evolution. With his colleagues, he has tracked the problem from myriad angles, and it is not surprising that recently he has turned to sex. In a paper released at the start of this month, Sam Sinai, Jason Olejarz, Iulia A. Neagu, & Nowak (2016) argue that sex is primary. We need sex just to kick start the evolution of a primordial cell.

In this post, I want to sketch Sinai et al.’s (2016) main argument, discuss prior work on the primacy of sex, a similar model by Wilf & Ewens, the puzzle over emergence of higher levels of organization, and the difference between the protocell fusion studied by Sinai et al. (2016) and sex as it is normally understood. My goal is to introduce this fascinating new field that Sinai et al. (2016) are opening to you, dear reader; to provide them with some feedback on their preprint; and, to sketch some preliminary ideas for future extensions of their work.

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Chemical games and the origin of life from prebiotic RNA

From bacteria to vertebrates, life — as we know it today — relies on complex molecular interactions, the intricacies of which science has not fully untangled. But for all its complexity, life always requires two essential abilities. Organisms need to preserve their genetic information and reproduce.

In our own cells, these tasks are assigned to specialized molecules. DNA, of course, is the memory store. The information it encodes is expressed into proteins via messenger RNAs.Transcription (the synthesis of mRNAs from DNA) and translation (the synthesis of proteins from mRNAs) are catalyzed by polymerases necessary to speed up the chemical reactions.

It is unlikely that life started that way, with such a refined division of labor. A popular theory for the origin of life, known as the RNA world, posits that life emerged from just one type of molecule: RNAs. Because RNA is made up of base-complementary nucleotides, it can be used as a template for its own reproduction, just like DNA. Since the 1980s, we also know that RNA can act as a self-catalyst. These two superpowers – information storage and self-catalysis – make it a good candidate for the title of the first spark of life on earth.

The RNA-world theory has yet to meet with empirical evidence, but laboratory experiments have shown that self-preserving and self-reproducing RNA systems can be created in vitro. Little is known, however, about the dynamics that governed pre- and early life. In a recent paper, Yeates et al. (2016) attempt to shed light on this problem by (1) examining how small sets of different RNA sequences can compete for survival and reproduction in the lab and (2) offering a game-theoretical interpretation of the results.

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Computational theories of evolution

If you look at your typical computer science department’s faculty list, you will notice the theorists are a minority. Sometimes they are further subdivided by being culled off into mathematics departments. As such, any institute that unites and strengthens theorists is a good development. That was my first reason for excitement two years ago when I learned that a $60 million grant would establish the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC, Berkeley. The institute’s mission is close to my heart: bringing the study of theoretical computer science to bear on the natural sciences; an institute for the algorithmic lens. My second reason for excitement was that one of the inaugural programs is evolutionary biology and the theory of computing. Throughout this term, a series workshops are being held to gather and share the relevant experience.

Right now, I have my conference straw hat on, as I wait for a flight transfer in Dallas on my way to one of the events in this program, the workshop on computational theories of evolution. For the next week I will be in Berkeley absorbing all there is to know on the topic. Given how much I enjoyed Princeton’s workshop on natural algorithms in the sciences, I can barely contain my excitement.
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Cooperation, enzymes, and the origin of life

Enzymes play an essential role in life. Without them, the translation of genetic material into proteins — the building blocks of all phenotypic traits — would be impossible. That fact, however, poses a problem for anyone trying to understand how life appeared in the hot, chaotic, bustling molecular “soup” from which it sparked into existence some 4 billion years ago.

StromatolitesThrow a handful of self-replicating organic molecules into a glass of warm water, then shake it well. In this thoroughly mixed medium, molecules that help other molecules replicate faster –- i.e. enzymes or analogues thereof — do so at their own expense and, by virtue of natural selection, must sooner or later go extinct. But now suppose that little pockets or “vesicles” form inside the glass by some abiotic process, encapsulating the molecules into isolated groups. Suppose further that, once these vesicles reach a certain size, they can split and give birth to “children” vesicles — again, by some purely physical, abiotic process. What you now have is a recipe for group selection potentially favorable to the persistence of catalytic molecules. While less fit individually, catalysts favor the group to which they belong.

This gives rise to a conflict opposing (1) within-group selection against “altruistic” traits and (2) between-group selection for such traits. In other words, enzymes and abiotic vesicles make an evolutionary game theory favourite — a social dilemma.
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Algorithmic view of historicity and separation of scales in biology

A Science publications is one of the best ways to launch your career, especially if it is based on your undergraduate work, part of which you carried out with makeshift equipment in your dorm! That is the story of Thomas M.S. Chang, who in 1956 started experiments (partially carried out in his residence room in McGill’s Douglas Hall) that lead to the creation of the first artificial cell (Chang, 1964). This was — in the words of the 1989 New Scientists — an “elegantly simple and intellectually ambitious” idea that “has grown into a dynamic field of biomedical research and development.” A field that promises to connect biology and computer science by physically realizing John von Neumann’s dream of a self-replication machine.

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