Leaf skeleton (Photo: Artak Petrosyan/Unsplash)

All multicellular organisms senesce and eventually die. So, too, with most biological systems — whether mitochondria, or hearts, or dogs, or any of the ecosystems that living things inhabit.

According to SFI External Professor Michael Hochberg, Director at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Montpellier, we see biological death more clearly when we understand it in terms of system collapse. Imagine a doctor who attributes her patient’s death to heart failure. What if the deceased, who was eighty-five, also had pneumonia and had recently broken a hip? How do these latter facts enter into our understanding of the cause of death?

Understanding the patterns of mortality, biological failure, and system collapse is the focus of a forthcoming working group at SFI, “Hallmarks of Biological Failure,” which will take place April 8-10. Hochberg, along with Daniel Promislow, have planned three meetings on the subject. In the first, this April, they will convene a group of researchers to take stock of theories and data across disciplines on the structures of biological failure from a non-evolutionary standpoint. In the second, they plan to bring these patterns into an evolutionary framework — how does evolution shape the patterns of aging? In the third, they will consider the possibility that patterns in the collapse of biological systems are similar to those of non-living systems.

The organizers expect that the ongoing working group will bring into relief the universal patterns of senescence that researchers see in biology, gerontology, and evolutionary biology — and therefore have a bearing on a wide range of applied fields, including human health, species conservation, and pest control. For Promislow, the group may deepen the theoretical framework for his large-scale work on aging dogs at the Canine Longevity Consortium. Since dogs are the most phenotypically variable animals, comparing their aging processes across breeds will help researchers illuminate and sharpen patterns of the kind that the working group will explore.

In the long term, Promislow and Hochberg will investigate whether their work will yield insights into the ways that non-biological systems collapse. Does the collapse of a galaxy or the failure of a circuit board bear any resemblance to the collapse of an ecosystem or a heart? Promislow and Hochberg hope, cautiously, that the new wave of systems level work in biology they are undertaking will yield fascinating insights into patterns of collapse in systems of all kinds.

The working group is a part of the Aging, Adaptation, and Arrow of Time research theme funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation.