Monday, November 10, 2008

Researchers from Rice University have created a mathematical model of evolution in viruses and bacteria that takes into account not only mutation rates, but also recombination rates and fitness functions, allowing for a better theoretical understanding of evolutionary processes.

This kind of work at the data-intensive interface between molecular biology, ecology, statistical mathematics and epidemiology will increasingly shape how scientists approach the study of living beings, and in time will change how we interact with the biosphere. At a moment when the planet's biological systems are changing at an incredibly fast rate, knowing how they do so will be necessary if we are to understand how we can live through and with those changes. The treatment of organisms -healing some, attacking some- won't be enough; we'll need to be able to work with entire species or even ecosystems, at enormous scales and dealing with multiple feedback systems.

Plainly speaking, there's no way we are ever going to manage that level of conceptual complexity without advancing our modeling and data-gathering capabilities, and using them as a privileged input to our global decision-making (that is, political) processes.

It's going to be tricky at best.

(An interesting aside: DARPA is partly founding this research, and if you think it has no defense implications, you haven't really thought about what 'defense' will mean a few years from now.)

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