Homeostasis and Biological Individuality, Design Principles for Synthetic Ecology and Tokyo: Experiencing the microbial city

In this informal seminar I will give an overview of my work at ELSI, the Earth Life Science Institute in Tokyo, over the last few months. I’ll present the outline of my principal research project with Nathaniel Virgo, asking how the emergence and evolution of homeostasis and environmental regulation might interact with the Major Transitions in Evolution and the formation of new evolutionary levels over time. This project springs from a desire to address a clear disconnection between two philosophical perspectives on the biological individual, the autopoietic or enactive and the evolutionary. Autopoiesis prioritises the self-constructing, self-maintaining metabolic individual which defines itself as separate from and modulates its interaction with the environment. Individuals are autocatalytic, bounded chemical processes whose physical nature is considered seriously. However, these theories have not so far been able to successfully incorporate the formation of new higher-level individuals over evolutionary time. On the other hand, evolutionary theory defines individuality for the most part in terms of the stabilisation of groups of co-operators into new evolutionary units, in which within-group reproductive conflict is suppressed. Organism-organism interaction is usually the primary consideration. This focus often minimises the physicality of the individual and reduces the importance of organism-environment interactions. By focussing on collective biological niche construction and considering how the continual processes of interaction of organism and environment may evolve, we aim to explore the incorporation of such interactions into the selective processes. Including how they potentially support the emergence and consolidation of new levels of individuality over evolutionary time. I will discuss plans to consider various example systems. In particular, modelling the emergence and evolutionary implications of homeostatic environmental regulation in a synthetic yeast-algae mutualism. Work which also has practical implications for synthetic ecology.

I’ll also give a brief overview of the other projects which I worked on in Tokyo.

Ongoing work with my collaborator Erik Hom at the University of Mississippi on a new design framework for synthetic ecology. The field of synthetic ecology, in which communities of microbial organisms are designed and assembled in order to perform various useful functions, is a recent offshoot of synthetic biology. As such, it retains many of the prejudices and aims of that field. Considering organisms as clearly bounded modules which can be assembled into fully controllable “machines”. We are proposing a new framework appropriate for the realities of complex adaptive systems combining lessons from the lab with the principles of permaculture design.

The Microbial City: an experimental workshop run in central Tokyo with “fermentation designer” Hiraku Ogura which combined citizen microbial ecology and experiential city walking to provide an experience of the city as a multi-level ecosystem.

The Artificial Life and Society initiative, which considers the future of societal interaction with living, lifelike and hybrid complex adaptive systems and technologies at all scales. And possibly an extract from the android opera “Scary Beauty”, premiered at the ALIFE 2018 conference……

Thursday, 13 December, 2018 -
12:30 to 14:00
Dr Alex Penn
Presenter(s) biography: 

Alexandra Penn is a complexity scientist working on combining participatory methodologies and mathematical models to create tools for stakeholders to understand and “steer” their complex human ecosystems. As a research fellow at the University of Surrey she has developed participatory complexity science methodologies for decision makers to explore interdependencies between social, ecological, economic and political factors in “industrial ecosystems”; in particular, looking at the transition to bio-based economy in a region of heavy industry and fossil fuel energy generation in the Humber Estuary, UK. She is a principal member of the new “Centre for Evaluating Complexity across the Nexus” (energy-environment-food), CECAN, a collaboration between academics, policy professionals and the UK government to generate novel, cutting-edge methods for evaluating policy for complex systems.
Alex has an academic background in physics and evolutionary ecology, training at Sussex University and as a junior fellow at the Collegium Budapest Institute for Advanced Study, followed by a Life Sciences Interface fellowship in the Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group, University of Southampton. She is also a strong inter-disciplinarian, with a track record of working across disciplines, with a broad variety of stakeholders from policy makers to industrialists and with members of the public as a science communicator.
She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts for her work in novel application of whole-systems design to bacterial communities and is a member of the board of directors and Chair for Societal Impact of the International Society for Artificial Life.
Alex tweets @DrAlexPenn