Question #3: Why Be Nice?
Human society depends on countless acts of cooperation and personal sacrifice. But that doesn’t make us unique. Consider Myxococcus xanthus, a species of bacteria that Lenski and his colleagues study. Myxococcus travels in giant swarms 100,000 strong, hunting down E. coli and other bacteria like wolves chasing moose. They kill their prey by spitting out antibiotics; then they spit out digestive enzymes that make the E. coli burst open. The swarm then feasts together on the remains. If the Myxococcus swarm senses that they’ve run out of prey to hunt, they gather together to form a stalk. The bacteria at the very top of the stalk turn into spores, which can be carried away by wind or water to another spot where they can start a new pack. Meanwhile, the individuals that formed the stalk die.
This sort of cooperation poses a major puzzle because it could be undermined by the evolution of cheaters. Some bacteria might feast on the prey killed by their swarm mates and avoid wasting their own energy making antibiotics or enzymes. Others might evolve ways of ensuring that they always end up becoming spores and never get left behind in the dead stalk. Such cheaters are not theoretical: Lenski and his colleagues have evolved them in their lab.
The Avida team is now trying to address the mystery of cooperation by creating new commands that will let organisms exchange packages of information. “Once we get them to communicate, can we get them to work together to solve a problem?” asks Ofria. “You can set up an information economy, where one organism can pay another one to do a computation for it.”
If digital organisms cooperate, Ofria thinks it may be possible to get them working together to solve real-world computing problems in the same way Myxococcus swarms attack their prey. “I think we’ll be able to solve much more complex problems, because we won’t have to know how to break them down. The organisms will have to figure it out for themselves,” says Ofria. “We could really change the face of a lot of computing.”
Question #4: Why Sex?
Birds do it, bees do it, and even fleas do it—but why they all do it is another matter. Reproduction is possible without sex. Bacteria and protozoa simply split in two. Some trees send shoots into the ground that sprout up as new trees. There are even lizard species that are all female. Their eggs don’t need sperm to start developing into healthy baby female lizards.
“One of the biggest questions in evolution is, why aren’t all organisms asexual?” says Adami. Given the obvious inefficiency of sex, evolutionary biologists suspect that it must confer some powerful advantage that makes it so common. But they have yet to come to a consensus about what that advantage is.
So Dusan Misevic, a biologist at Michigan State, has spent the past couple of years introducing sex into Avida. While digital sex may lack romance, it features the most important element from an evolutionary point of view: the genetic material from two parents gets mixed together in a child. When a digital organism makes a copy of itself, the copy doesn’t immediately take its own place in Avida and start reproducing. Instead, chunks of its code are swapped with the copy of another new organism. Only after this exchange do the two creatures start to reproduce.
In 1964 the German biologist H. J. Muller proposed that sex allows organisms to mix their genomes together in combinations that can overcome the effects of harmful mutations. Asexual organisms, on the other hand, are stuck with all the mutations their ancestors pass down to them. Over time, Muller argued, they can’t reproduce as quickly as their sexual competitors. Misevic designed an experiment to put Muller’s hypothesis to the test. “It’s a classic explanation, so it seemed like a good place to start,” he says.
Misevic created two kinds of worlds: one full of sexual digital organisms and the other full of asexuals. After they had evolved for tens of thousands of generations, he measured how fast they could replicate. “The overall conclusion we got was that, yes, there are some situations where sex is beneficial,” says Misevic. But there were surprises. Sex is good mainly as a way to escape annihilation from lethal mutations. But in Avida, sexual organisms had to pay a price for that insurance—they carried more nonlethal yet harmful mutations than the asexual organisms.
“We must look to other explanations to help explain sex in general,” says Misevic.
Question #5: What Does Life on Other Planets Look Like?
Life on Earth is based on DNA. But we can’t exclude the possibility that life could evolve from a completely different system of molecules. And that raises some worrying questions about the work going on these days to find signs of extraterrestrial life. NASA is funding a wide range of life-detecting instruments, from rovers that prowl across Mars to telescopes that will gaze at distant solar systems. They are looking for the signs of life that are produced on Earth. Some are looking for high levels of oxygen in the atmospheres of other planets. Others are looking for bits of DNA or fragments of cell walls. But if there’s non-DNA-based life out there, we might overlook it because it doesn’t fit our preconceptions.
“We can look at how known life-forms leave marks on their environment,” says Evan Dorn, a member of Chris Adami’s lab at Caltech, “but we can never make universal statements about them because we have only one example.”
Dorn says Avida is example number two. By finding patterns that are shared by life on Earth and life in Avida, he thinks he will be able to offer some ideas about how to look for life that the universe might be harboring.
Some researchers have suggested the best way to look for signs of life is to look for weird chemistry. Take the building blocks of proteins—amino acids—which are found on meteorites and can also be created in the lab simply by running an electric current through ammonia and other compounds. In a lifeless setting, the most common amino acid that results is the simplest: glycine. Some slightly less simple amino acids are also common, but all the larger ones make up only a trace or are missing altogether. That’s because it takes a lot of energy to make those big amino acids. “There’s a limited repertoire of chemistry in the absence of life,” says Dorn.
If you analyze a scoop of soil or pond water, however, you’ll find a completely different profile of amino acids. Life has evolved ways of building certain big amino acids, and when organisms die, those big amino acids float around in the environment.
What if life on another planet made compounds that were radically different from amino acids? Would it alter its planet’s chemistry in some similar way?
To test this idea, Dorn created a world devoid of life. Instead of containing a self-replicating program, each cell contained a random assortment of commands. All of the commands in the Avida language were present at equal levels. Here was the signature of a lifeless planet.
Then Dorn began dropping organisms into this world, like spores falling to Earth. At the beginning of the experiment, he set the mutation rate so high that no spore could replicate very long on the planet. (Think of Mars, where ultraviolet rays pelt the surface.) Gradually, he lowered the mutation rate until life could survive. “As soon as the environment was habitable, the organism took over and dominated the environment,” Dorn says.
As the digital organisms evolved to adapt to the world, Dorn found that some commands became rare and others became far more common. This distinctive signature stayed stable as long as life could survive on the planet. And no matter how many times Dorn repeated the experiment, the same signature of life appeared. Whether manipulating amino acids or computer commands, life does seem to leave the same mark. “It gives us a pretty strong indication that this process is universal,” says Dorn.
If Dorn is right, discovery of non-DNA life would become a little less spectacular because it would mean that we have already stumbled across it here on Earth—in East Lansing, Michigan.
Question #6: What Will Life on Earth Look Like In The Future?
One of the hallmarks of life is its ability to evolve around our best efforts to control it. Antibiotics, for example, were once considered a magic bullet that would eradicate infectious diseases. In just a few decades, bacteria have evolved an arsenal of defenses that make many antibiotics useless.
Ofria has been finding that digital organisms have a way of outwitting him as well. Not long ago, he decided to see what would happen if he stopped digital organisms from adapting. Whenever an organism mutated, he would run it through a special test to see whether the mutation was beneficial. If it was, he killed the organism off. “You’d think that would turn off any further adaptation,” he says. Instead, the digital organisms kept evolving. They learned to process information in new ways and were able to replicate faster. It took a while for Ofria to realize that they had tricked him. They had evolved a way to tell when Ofria was testing them by looking at the numbers he fed them. As soon as they recognized they were being tested, they stopped processing numbers. “If it was a test environment, they said, ‘Let’s play dead,’ ” says Ofria. “There’s this thing coming to kill them, and so they avoid it and go on with their lives.”
When Ofria describes these evolutionary surprises, admiration and ruefulness mix in his voice. “Here I am touting Avida as a wonderful system where you have full knowledge of everything and can control anything you want—except I can’t get them to stop adapting. Life will always find a way.”
Thinking about such adaptable creatures lurking on the Michigan State campus, furiously feeding on data, can be unsettling. Should the Avida team be working in quarantine? Lenski argues that Avida itself acts as a quarantine, because its organisms can exist only in its computer language. “They’re living in an alien world,” Lenski says. “They may be nasty predators from Mars, but they’d drop dead here.”
Still, Ofria acknowledges that harmful computer viruses may eventually evolve like his caged digital organisms. “Some day it’s going to happen, and it’s going to be scary,” Ofria says. “Better to study them now so we know how to deal with them.”
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