Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

A new idea from a University of Southern California molecular biologist suggests a surprising truth: life might actually require some instability. John Tower proposes that “selectively advantageous instability” is a fundamental biological rule, existing alongside the more familiar concept of stability for resource conservation.

Biological laws are uncommon, but they offer valuable insights into the general patterns that govern life. These principles are less rigid than the laws of physics or math, but they still help us understand the complex workings of living organisms.

Most known biological “rules” focus on resource management, like how warm-blooded animals adapt to their environment. Allen’s rule, for example, explains why animals in colder climates have shorter limbs to minimize heat loss. However, exceptions exist, like the short-legged bush dog of South America.

Another example is the prevalence of self-similar structures in nature, like the logarithmic spiral of a nautilus shell. These efficient designs are believed to optimize material and energy use. The honeycomb structure built by bees exemplifies this concept beautifully.

“These self-similar structures are thought to be the most economical way to grow,” explains Tower.

However, Tower’s concept challenges this focus on pure resource conservation. He argues that some level of instability is actually necessary for life, even if it leads to resource loss. This instability offers a crucial benefit: the ability to change and adapt.

“Increased complexity, brought on by instability, has potential advantages,” writes Tower. This complexity allows organisms to adapt on all levels, from molecules to entire populations. Even simple cells, says Tower, demonstrate this principle by constantly breaking down and rebuilding proteins and RNA.

This instability comes at a cost, though. It leads to wasted resources, mutations (both harmful and harmless), and ultimately, aging. However, without this instability and its downsides, life wouldn’t be able to adapt and thrive in a constantly changing world.

So, living organisms exist in a constant tug-of-war between stability and instability, needing both for survival.

Tower suggests that recent scientific concepts like chaos theory, criticality, and Turing patterns might all be linked to this “selectively advantageous instability.” This theory opens new avenues for research into how this interplay between stability and instability shapes the wonders of life.

Published 16 May 2024 in Frontiers in Aging; Selectively advantageous instability in biotic and pre-biotic systems and implications for evolution and aging |


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