Meeting Summary: Biological systems eventually fail. Depending on the system type, birth to failure can occur in anywhere from fractions of a second to millennia. All such systems come into existence following often characteristic phases of development, and are either intrinsically resilient to change or are maintained in a high-functioning state via specific mechanisms. Nevertheless, despite what may be stable function over much or most of a system’s lifespan, all systems eventually age, and aging is prognostic for eventual failure. A central question is whether all robust biological systems fail in the same way or in a limited number of ways. A number of approaches have been taken to address this question, but most ignore how hierarchical interdependence in the nodes forming the system network are actually structured, and how this predicts the aging in each node and eventual cascades that lead to modular failure or failure of the whole system.
The working group “Hallmarks of Biological Failure” will bring together experts working on biological systems ranging from subcellular processes to ecosystems to discover if there is a common pattern in the events leading up to system failure, and what is (are) the higher-level driver(s) that restrict the pattern(s) we observe. Our aim is to produce a framework for describing and understanding the precursors (such as aging) of biological failure, which integrates the effects of within-generation demographic selection and longer-term natural selection. The results will have implications for systems biology, aging research, gerontology, and evolutionary biology.