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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

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Nigel Goldenfeld Interviewed in Huffington Post

Susan Mazur of the Huffington Post recently interviewed Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Professor of Physics. Goldenfeld, also the leader of the IGB Biocomplexity research theme, as well as the director of the Institute for Universal Biology, a NASA astrobiology institute housed at the IGB, spoke on evolution, Carl Woese, and the need for a theory of life, among other things.

From the interview:
Suzan Mazur: Carl Woese also told me that the Last Universal Common Ancestor was not anything material and that evolution is not a "procession of forms," it's more a procession of processes and that physicists and mathematicans are important to the understanding of this new biology. Can you please clarify this idea that LUCA was not something material?

Nigel Goldenfeld: What Carl meant was this. The nature of the evolutionary process we think was different than it is today. Early life was much more collective, much more communal than it is today, particularly the core cellular machinery such as translational machinery, etc., which was horizontally transferred.

We don't know how that happened. It may well have been that there was massive endosymbiosis, meaning organisms were very porous and could crash into each other and absorb each other on a massive scale and that's how cellular functions were transmitted.

That was an idea Carl proposed in the 1970s in one of his papers. But when you have a system which operates in that way, the dynamics -- how the thing changes in time -- obeys very different mathematical principles than what happens post-LUCA when you have vertically-dominated evolution.

An example of this is, suppose you ask what is the defining characteristic of evolving systems, whether they're biologically evolving with genes, etc., or they are other systems you might want to consider living in some sense (for example, financial markets perhaps). The perspective that Carl and I put forward in our last paper together is that life is inherently self-referential. In other words, it's like a computer program which can constantly overwrite the program itself as it runs. The notion that program is the data and the data is the program, the idea that life has a dynamics where the rules that govern life are themselves changed by the rules -- that's self-referentiality. It gives you a kind of description of the physical system that behaves in a mathematical way but is quite unlike any other system that we've ever studied.

It's not like the laws of classical mechanics or the laws of quantum mechanics or the laws of statistical mechanics. Trying to understand the evolutionary process in a more general way requires us to think in a different way mathematically than the way we've thought in the past. I do work with and talk to mathematicians about these sorts of issues.

Read the entire article on the Huffington Post website here.

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Susan Mazur
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