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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Sep 11;115(37):E8678-E8687. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1807890115. Epub 2018 Aug 27.

Physical foundations of biological complexity.

Author information

1
National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD 20894.
2
Institute for Molecules and Materials, Radboud University, 6525AJ Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
3
National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD 20894; koonin@ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Abstract

Biological systems reach hierarchical complexity that has no counterpart outside the realm of biology. Undoubtedly, biological entities obey the fundamental physical laws. Can today's physics provide an explanatory framework for understanding the evolution of biological complexity? We argue that the physical foundation for understanding the origin and evolution of complexity can be gleaned at the interface between the theory of frustrated states resulting in pattern formation in glass-like media and the theory of self-organized criticality (SOC). On the one hand, SOC has been shown to emerge in spin-glass systems of high dimensionality. On the other hand, SOC is often viewed as the most appropriate physical description of evolutionary transitions in biology. We unify these two faces of SOC by showing that emergence of complex features in biological evolution typically, if not always, is triggered by frustration that is caused by competing interactions at different organizational levels. Such competing interactions lead to SOC, which represents the optimal conditions for the emergence of complexity. Competing interactions and frustrated states permeate biology at all organizational levels and are tightly linked to the ubiquitous competition for limiting resources. This perspective extends from the comparatively simple phenomena occurring in glasses to large-scale events of biological evolution, such as major evolutionary transitions. Frustration caused by competing interactions in multidimensional systems could be the general driving force behind the emergence of complexity, within and beyond the domain of biology.

KEYWORDS:

competing interactions; evolution of complexity; frustrated states; self-organized criticality; spin glasses

PMID:
30150417
PMCID:
PMC6140470
DOI:
10.1073/pnas.1807890115
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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