Biologists have long had to fight against the idea that theirs is a ‘soft’ science. Now, armed with tools from computer science, they are changing our ideas about life itself.
BY STEVE CONNOR
The traditional innumeracy of biology has been the subject of some ridicule from the “hard” sciences. Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, could be said to have started the jibes with his famous remark that everything in science is physics – the rest is mere “stamp collecting”.
But biologists are fighting back. There is a growing feeling that they must go beyond making mere observations of their living subjects. They must also study and understand how cells and organisms are computing the vital information required for life.
Now, for the first time, the tools that have been developed for computer science are being used as part of a radical new approach to try to understand the process of complex computation we know as “life”. Indeed, according to Stephen Emmott, head of computational science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, the study of computation is poised to become as fundamental to biology as mathematics is to physics.
Emmott says that continuing to collate long lists of biological parts for the next half century is not going to lead to the sort of fundamental advances in biology that are really needed – advances he and his team are striving to achieve. “We’ve had 50 years of spectacular success in molecular biology, culminating in the mapping of the genome, yet despite this we still don’t know how a cell works,” he says.
“Cells perform computations 24 hours a day, continuously carrying out complex information processing and decision making, but no one is fundamentally asking the question of what is it that cells compute, and how and why.” he says. “Our approach is very theoretically driven, but testing those theories using novel, precise quantitative, computational modelling approaches, rather than either the experimental poke-and-measure approach or established mathematical approaches.”
Keeping the planet habitable
Emmott’s lab is also pioneering new ways of thinking about complex biological problems, whether it is about how the cell works or the complicated interactions between whole organisms that comprise complex ecosystems – especially ecosystems that keep the planet habitable. And at the centre of this revolutionary approach is the idea that living things are essentially information-processing systems, not just vast collections of interacting biological components.
It’s about thinking of the biochemistry of life as “living software”. It’s not just about genes as a set of fixed, digital instructions. It’s considering cells and living things as information-processing systems, he says.
The brain is another prime example of a biological information processor, and Emmott’s lab is about to begin a new project in neuroscience, the discipline that he himself trained in. “The approach is simple – just asking questions very differently. It’s about asking ‘what is it that the brain does?’, rather saying ‘from all these recordings, the brain must do this’,” he says.
Emmot has recruited some of the brightest minds in science to exploit this new way of thinking about biological problems, be they about individual cells or the planetary biosphere. “I would call everyone here [in my lab] the sort of new kind of scientist who will drive important advances in science this century, who are both theoretically underpinned but who are also highly computational,” he says, “Every project we do has very real-world implications, that’s precisely why we do them.”
Steve Connor is Science Editor of The Independent, UK