Energy, Life, Systems Biology


soap bubbles: Lord Kelvin’s tetrakaidecahedrons

I was very taken by Dr Nick Lane’s way of talking about the origins of life. He was on The Life Scientific this week spinning tales of under-sea hydrothermal vents, soap bubbles, and how bacteria are excellent chemists.


Naturally I visited his website, where I enjoyed this picture of -ahem- pond scum, and this quote from his write-up of his own book The Vital Question:

Biology is going through an informational revolution right now, but I wonder if we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Genes have given unprecedented insights into the history of life on earth, yet they don’t seem to explain its trajectory. I think we’ve overlooked one of the key facets of living: energy … the peculiar mechanism by which cells actually extract energy from the world around them, generating an electrical charge around the cell with the strength of a bolt of lightning.

A few of us suspect that the answer to life, the universe and everything lies in the interplay of energy and genes. That bringing energy into the equation can potentially explain the whole trajectory of evolution, from the origins of life to the strange properties of complex organisms, whether pond scum or humans…

…People read books on cosmology and quantum physics, hoping to have their minds blown…But biology is too often considered a soft subject… Yet nothing could be further from the truth! All the best problems in physics are now in biology. Life is astonishing, biology is hard, and nature is mind blowing.

Meanwhile on Wednesday night I was out meeting and listening to presentations from the good people of Maastricht University’s Science Programme (MSP). My particular interest was in that Informational Revolution that Nick Lane mentions in his quote, in the subject of Systems Biology which happily seems to combine all my favourites (even knitting!?) in one academic discipline. Pretty pictures of networks to keep your attention:

The gist of it is that there’s a lot of data coming in (think of brain scans, genome sequencing, big data on ‘lifestyle’ from smartphones…)  and mathematical modellers with an interest in biology and complexity are urgently needed to get to grips with all of it. I want to do this!

About ballsofwool

knitter, mum, thinker
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