MANHASSET, N.Y. An artficial intelligence research program has been refocused to simulate real biological organisms in hopes of gleaning an understanding of biological diversity.
"These simulations will help direct research on living systems and will provide understanding of the origins of biocomplexity," said Richard Lenski, a researcher at Michigan State University.
The goal of the project is to create a living "road map" that encapsulates the history of evolution in an electronic petri dish called Avida. The researchers are investigating how complex organisms evolve from simple ones.
"Darwinian evolution affects DNA and computer code in much the same way, which allows us to study the process of evolution in an electronic medium,"said Lenski.
Engineers have long sought to harness the principles of Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest to promote the self-organization of higher-level functions from a beginning of simple rules.
"Simple functions, each unremarkable if viewed in isolation, can string together into a long series of mutations that natural selection weeds out to evolve higher-level functions," said Sam Scheiner, program director in the division of environmental biology at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research.
The overall aim of the Avida project is to create a road map of
biodiversity and to catalog the steps that need to be taken to ensure that it is not thwarted by overdevelopment of natural resources. Researchers have argued for a long-term longitudinal study since mutations often seen counterproductive in their first generation, but later appear to steer the species into a new direction that, after a few generations, leaves them better off than before the random mutation.
"Some mutations look like really bad events when they happen, but because each simple function contributes to the formation of complex functions, sometimes things that look bad turn out to have important benefits to the population over time," said Lenski.
The artificial organisms inside Avida reproduce, mutate and live longer by performing mathematical calculations. During their lives they reproduce along the way, leaving copies of
themselves wherever they go.
Because time is speeded up inside Avida, what would take thousands of years of evolution can take place in a manner of minutes or hours. In addition, every step they made along their evolutionary way is tracked in a sophisticated audit trail impossible to create in the lab.
One of the most useful functions in Avida is the ability to roll time backwards to see what happened. By looking back, each
micro-step along the way can be reviewed and key steps can be
cataloged for the future. Because there is so much detail, the team has developed tools that zero-in on what is important.
Avida still has a long ways to go however, if it is going to explain the evolution of very complex mechanisms like the human eye. All the different parts of the eye seem to have been designed at once, and so far Avida has not explained its natural evolution, but its made
The artificial intelligence software can be downloaded at the Avida Web site.