We usually think of evolution in terms of biological organisms, but systems and organisations are also subject to evolutionary change, based at least in part on natural selection. This is not a novel thought (albeit one could debate extensively the ‘unit of selection’ – in biology it is not the gene, and the concept is probably redundant) and one I mentioned in last week’s blog with regard to financial systems. Indeed, this week included an interesting half hour on Radio 4 based around the Haldane and May paper referenced therein.
Last week we had a very valuable meeting with the Chairs of our Institute Governing Bodies. The Chairs have an enormously important (formal and real) role in developing the performance of our Institutes, and this meeting provided an excellent opportunity to explore important general issues for which collective concerns and best practice solutions could be shared. Not least in the modern world, the complex and nonlinear dynamics can move very quickly (any inspection of the national and international news tells one that), and we have purposely arranged a follow-up meeting in the near future.
We also had a very fruitful visit to the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). PML used to be a Research Council Institute, but became independent in 2002. With a half time of some 6 years, it has acquired new personnel (and a partially new agenda that nevertheless builds on its strengths), and it was of considerable interest to see how it has built up an activity in Industrial Biotechnology, centred on algae and cyanobacteria. Given that many classical and modern fermentations and biotransformations rely on sugars as starting points, it is not unreasonable that there can be significant gains from using organisms that fix the necessary carbon from atmospheric CO2 directly. Whilst metabolic engineering and synthetic biology can in theory develop any organism to make anything, some products are almost certainly better made in particular clades. (I have long wondered why corynebacteria are so good at overproducing the natural amino acids, and I am not sure that this is really well understood.) Mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs), whose biosynthesis is beginning to be understood, may be an example in photosynthetic microorganisms.
A little summary of metabolic network systems biology that I wrote for The Biochemist came out, concentrating on the ‘dry’ (modelling) side.
I maintain a strong interest in how we can improve the dissemination of science. Most papers are made available in Adobe’s pdf format, which is recognised as having limitations. A recent conference on this was entitled ‘Beyond the pdf’, and I enjoyed seeing an online version of Steve Pettifer’s entertaining presentation on Utopia Documents.
Some technologies can be ‘disruptive’, and I was rather struck by an article in The Economist on 3d printing that seems likely to be of this character. The examples given are based around materials engineering, but there would seem to be scope for applying these principles using biomaterials. Certainly the use of evolutionary principles to improve such designs has been known for more than a decade.
- Anon. The printed world. Economist, Feb 10th, pp
- Attwood TK, Kell DB, McDermott P, Marsh J, Pettifer S, Thorne D: Utopia Documents: linking scholarly literature with research data. Bioinformatics 2010; 26:i568-574. Free full text
- Balskus EP, Walsh CT: The genetic and molecular basis for sunscreen biosynthesis in cyanobacteria. Science 2010; 329:1653-1656
- Haldane AG, May RM: Systemic risk in banking ecosystems. Nature 2011; 469:351-355
- Kell DB: Understanding the languages of cells: network modelling in metabolic systems biology and biotechnology: why, how and whither. The Biochemist 2011; 33:4-7.
- Lipson H, Pollack JB: Automatic design and manufacture of robotic lifeforms. Nature 2000; 406:974-978
- Llewellyn CA, Airs RL: Distribution and abundance of MAAs in 33 species of microalgae across 13 classes. Mar Drugs 2010; 8:1273-1291. Full free text as pdf
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