All living organisms collect information from their environments and use it to adapt. SFI Omidyar Fellow Simon DeDeo likes to think of this as a form of “natural computation.” 

DeDeo, with collaborator and SFI External Professor David Krakauer (University of Wisconsin-Madison), has been awarded a $339,000 Advancing Theory in Biology grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate biological processes using the tools of computer science.

Watch DeDeo explain how conflict is a natural computation in an online SFI video (3 minutes)

The study applies classical computational theory to understand the unusual and counterintuitive ways evolved systems -- as opposed to engineered systems -- might compute.

“When you look at biological systems in the right way, you find this question of natural computation arise again and again in different forms -- for things as small as a single cell to as large as a social group,” says DeDeo, the principal investigator on the grant. “What happens when you open biology to what is now almost a hundred years of progress in computer science is only beginning to become apparent.” 

In addition to funding new research and collaboration in natural computation, including support for graduate and undergraduate students (the latter through SFI's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program), the grant also brings natural computation to New Mexico middle school students participating in SFI’s Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically) after-school science education program.

“While advances in 20th century mathematics often went hand-in-hand with the demands of physics, it seems likely that many of the most challenging problems for mathematics in the 21st century will come from biology,” DeDeo says. “This grant lets us take the first steps in that direction.”

Read more in the SFI Update newsletter (January-February issue)

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