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J Exp Biol. 2005 May;208(Pt 9):1575-92.

The origin of allometric scaling laws in biology from genomes to ecosystems: towards a quantitative unifying theory of biological structure and organization.

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The Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.


Life is the most complex physical phenomenon in the Universe, manifesting an extraordinary diversity of form and function over an enormous scale from the largest animals and plants to the smallest microbes and subcellular units. Despite this many of its most fundamental and complex phenomena scale with size in a surprisingly simple fashion. For example, metabolic rate scales as the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude, from molecular and intracellular levels up to the largest organisms. Similarly, time-scales (such as lifespans and growth rates) and sizes (such as bacterial genome lengths, tree heights and mitochondrial densities) scale with exponents that are typically simple powers of 1/4. The universality and simplicity of these relationships suggest that fundamental universal principles underly much of the coarse-grained generic structure and organisation of living systems. We have proposed a set of principles based on the observation that almost all life is sustained by hierarchical branching networks, which we assume have invariant terminal units, are space-filling and are optimised by the process of natural selection. We show how these general constraints explain quarter power scaling and lead to a quantitative, predictive theory that captures many of the essential features of diverse biological systems. Examples considered include animal circulatory systems, plant vascular systems, growth, mitochondrial densities, and the concept of a universal molecular clock. Temperature considerations, dimensionality and the role of invariants are discussed. Criticisms and controversies associated with this approach are also addressed.

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