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Artificial life experiments show how complex functions can evolve

Arlington, Va. -- If the evolution of complex organisms were a road trip, then the simple country drives are what get you there. And sometimes even potholes along the way are important.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists at Michigan State University and the California Institute of Technology, with the help of powerful computers, has used a kind of artificial life, or ALife, to create a road map detailing the evolution of complex organisms, an old problem in biology.

In an article in the May 8 issue of the international journal Nature, Richard Lenski, Charles Ofria, Robert Pennock, and Christoph Adami report that the path to complex organisms is paved with a long series of simple functions, each unremarkable if viewed in isolation. "This project addresses a fundamental criticism of the theory of evolution, how complex functions arise from mutation and natural selection," said Sam Scheiner, program director in the division of environmental biology at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research through its Biocomplexity in the Environment initiative. "These simulations will help direct research on living systems and will provide understanding of the origins of biocomplexity."

Some mutations that cause damage in the short term ultimately become a positive force in the genetic pedigree of a complex organism. "The little things, they definitely count," said Lenski of Michigan State, the paper's lead author. "Our work allowed us to see how the most complex functions are built up from simpler and simpler functions. We also saw that some mutations looked like bad events when they happened, but turned out to be really important for the evolution of the population over a long period of time."

In the key phrase, "a long period of time," lies the magic of ALife. Lenski teamed up with Adami, a scientist at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ofria, a Michigan State computer scientist, to further explore ALife.
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
7-May-2003


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