Andreas Wagner (University of Zürich; SFI External Professor)
Abstract. From biology to technology, a powerful mechanism to create innovation is recombination – the formation of new systems by combining old parts in new ways. However, we poorly understand the causes of this power. Part of the reason is that most success stories of innovation by recombination – especially in the history of technology – are historical narratives that do not allow a quantitative analysis. I discuss a biological system that can provide a systematic and principled understanding of recombination’s power to innovate. The system is metabolism, a complex network of chemical reactions that has been the source of countless innovations in life’s evolution. It is responsible for the ability of organisms to survive on a bewildering diversity of energy sources, for the adaptation of life to chemically hostile environments, and for the ability of organisms – especially plants – to manufacture myriad useful molecules. I discuss both experiments and computational analyses from my laboratory that help us understand the power of recombination to bring forth such innovations.