From molecules to ecosystemsSubmitted by editor on 23 May 2017.Get the paper!
Understanding only arises from organising knowledge to reveal relationships and patterns - what the Periodic Table did for chemistry. Biology is inherently difficult to organise and find general patterns. For example, different bits of biology have referred to the ‘function’ of genes, cellular processes, organs and the species composing ecosystems, all in different, apparently incompatible ways. A recent conceptual breakthrough has spotted an organising pattern in biological functioning by applying cutting edge genetic ideas and information concepts from physics and philosophy to the full range of living processes. The result is a unifying model of what all of life - from molecules to ecosystems - is really doing. It turns out that whenever we look into the function of a living process, it can be understood as a contribution to self-generating complexity: the phenomenon that forms cells from molecular interactions, organisms from cells, and communities from individuals. Ultimately all functions can be measured by how much they add to the self-replication of living processes in an auto-recursive production of cells by reproduction and growth. This concept not only unifies functional descriptions across biological subjects, it gives us a new idea of life as all one integrated process of auto-catalytic production, arranged in a ‘Russian-doll’ hierarchy of machines within machines. Not only are all animals and plants, people and bacteria connected, so are their genes and the chemical constituents, all components of a grand machine that is perpetually making itself: life on earth. This work, led by Queen’s University Belfast researcher Dr Keith Farnsworth, arose from a meeting on functional information organised by the German Synthesis Centre of Biodiversity Sciences (sDIV) in Leipzig 2015, which brought physics, genetics, mathematical and ecological experts together (photo of participants).