Coral polyps on Molasses Reef. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Photo: Brent Deuel/NOAA Photo Library)

Quanta magazine named SFI’s information theory of individuality in their annual review of biology breakthroughs. It was one of six selections for 2020.

“This will always be remembered as the year the COVID-19 pandemic exploded,” wrote the magazine’s deputy editor, John Rennie. “Grim as events have been, however, remarkable science has soldiered on.”

The SFI study, published March 24 in the journal Theory in Biosciences, uses information theory to answer one of biology’s biggest questions: what is an individual? 

The study was subsequently featured in a Quanta article by staff writer Jordana Cepelewicz, and named in the magazine’s year-end review under “Biological Individuality and Symbiosis.”

Instead of focusing on anatomical traits, like cell walls, study authors David Krakauer, SFI President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Nils Bertschinger of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Eckehard Olbrich of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences, SFI Professor Jessica Flack, and SFI Professor Nihat Ay (also of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences) look to structured information flows between a system and its environment. “Individuals,” they argue, “are best thought of in terms of dynamical processes and not as stationary objects.”

Rather than a noun, they describe the individual as “a kind of verb.”

Other breakthroughs in Quanta’s review were “Coping With the COVID-19 Pandemic,” “Understanding the Brain’s Computing Power,” “Why Sleep is Vital,” “The Origins and Exits of Genes,” and “A Deep Domain for Life at the Limits,” which described the extraction of living cells from undersea basaltic rocks.