Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hear No Evil, Do No Evil - The Next Antibiotic

Bonnie Bassler and her team at Princeton explore how bacteria talk to produce complex behaviors in a phenomena known as quorum sensing. Instead of trying to kill bad bacteria with antibiotics, which has the inadvertent consequence of selecting mutant survivors, Dr. Bassler suggests that by just preventing bacteria from communicating, we can stop virulent bacteria in its tracks. Watch the video of her presentation from TED:


Friday, February 20, 2009

The Biology of an Economic Crisis

The science of complex adaptive systems might be getting a new face lift during the current financial crisis. Our financial systems have certainly taken on a more "organic" look: a seemingly living breathing network of networks. I'm hoping that all those folks rushing in to create "new policy" can get there heads around "systems think" before they unleash all kinds of "unintended consequences" on their investors.

Back in November Legg Mason Strategist and Santa Fe Institute (SFI) trustee Michael Mauboussin interviewed Paleontologist Doug Irwin to get his perspective on the crisis. There are some fascinating parallels between biological and economic system level crisis. I was stuck by Irwin's observation a species may survive a crisis only to fall victim in the aftermath, incaple of adapting to the new reality. Read the entire interview here.

While the government is running around plugging holes, it makes me wonder if the shift we are going through isn't more profound than a "recession". Whole business models are imploding, hopeful to be replace by something more resilient (Hello... Schumpeter?)

Seed Magazine, my new favorite rag, has several articles in the February issue looking at the crisis with a complex system lens.

Take a look and recommend a biology class to your favorite economist!


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Optimal vs. Robust

One of my favorite arguments to get into is the difference between optimal and robust. If there where a slider bar between the two, where would you put the pointer?

Lots of folks choose "optimal", at which time the question becomes "what's the fitness function" (what you are optimizing for) and for which sort of environment. If your environment shifts, would you still be in an "optimal" position? Or (stealing from evolutionary biology) would you be isolated on a high optima requiring lots of energy to adapt to a new reality? Do you choose to be really, really good at one thing, or able to do lots of different things well enough to adapt quickly to what ever comes your way.

If you are in a dynamically changing environment, complete with lots of different things interacting with lots of other things my bet is on robustness. Take a look at this video and remember: nothing evolves to a simpler state.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Chuck!

So glad Alfred Wallace help speed your thinking! Nothing better to have around than a reluctant revolutionary.

And to celebrate your birthday, how about that new Neanderthal Genome . You would have loved the technology to do this study your day, but the research was probably not as enjoyable as a little island time in the Pacific.

I am sad to say that your new Neanderthal Genome study will refute my long held hypothesis that the Neanderthal line actually ended with the death of actor Lee Marvin .

Thanks Chuck, for shaking things up for 200 years!


Friday, February 06, 2009

Genome! Get Your Genome Here! Only $5,000!

The price of your entire Genome is now about the same as a very nice mountain bike! Complete Genomics is advertising their ability to sequence your A's, T's, C's and G's.

If that's too pricey for you, other companies like
Navigenics and 23andMe are offering more focused studies for the price of a premium cyclocross bike and a fine carbon fork respectively.

Your edge? Freak out the doctor next time and say "My recent genome study indicates that I have a single nucleotide polymorphism (or SNP) that favors high V02 Max performance and another that suggests I be alert about developing diabetes. Please write a prescription for a new cyclocross bike that will allow me to train hard, race fast and reduce my risk of type 2 diabetes". Then, show that prescription to your wife who, deeply concerned about your health, will have you contact your favorite framebuilder IMMEDIATELY!

I wonder if there is a SNP for rationalisation?

Eitherway, good article on the emerging field of personal genomics here. With this kind of info, we can all begin driving our own health care bus.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Singularity University: Future Thinkers, Lousy Football

There's a new school in town, and its all about how the future is increasingly the present. Singularity University went public yesterday. Founded by artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil, guided by Peter Diamandis (of X-Prize fame) and backed by Google-Bucks, this could be a fun ride...if you can pony up the $25,000 entry fee.

Focusing on the crossroad where accelerating technologies smash head-on into humanity, SU will offer courses spanning technology nano to bio, intelligence both natural and artificial, and even a few diversions into ethics and entreprenuership (I will admit that the bit on Human Enhancement gave me the heebie-geebies, but I figure they are way behind Hollywood, baseball, and cycling).

Since they have yet to name a mascot, I'm proposing "The Black Holes". That will scare the slime out of the UCSC Banana Slugs!


Monday, February 20, 2006

The Red Queen and Quickly Evolving Diseases.....

A recent article by BBC underscores the dangers of modern life:

"This accumulation of new pathogens has been going on for millennia - this is how we acquired TB, malaria, smallpox," said Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University Of Edinburgh, UK.

"But at the moment, this accumulation does seem to be happening very fast. We're going to have to run as fast as we can to stay in the same place"

"So it seems there is something special about modern times - these are good times for pathogens to be invading the human population."



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