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OnCampus Weekly...APRIL 22/05

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kaufmannQ & A

Stuart Kauffman
Director, Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics

Dr. Stuart Kauffman is a new iCORE chair and director of U of C’s Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics (IBI). Kaufmann is well known for his research in theoretical biology and as a pioneer in the field of complexity theory.

Interview by Garth Boucher

Tell us a little bit about your academic background.

I actually started my career as a playwright and wrote three plays. I like to say now that instead of writing comedies or tragedies I created a third form: I wrote three atrocities. So I decided I was going to be a philosopher instead. I got an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1960. A Marshall scholarship followed and I did another two years of philosophy, psychology and physiology at Oxford.

Next up was medical school at San Francisco in 1964. It was there that I got interested in how genetic networks regulate things like cell differentiation.

During my third year of med school, I was thrilled when my work with genetic regulatory networks got me invited to join Jack Cowan and his Committee on Mathematical Biology at the University of Chicago. I completed my MD and internship, then spent the next six years in Chicago.

I eventually ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, where I invented a new technique now called “combinatorial chemistry” that is currently in wide use for the synthesis of new drugs. The basic idea is to “artificially evolve” drugs to suit a certain purpose. I am deeply proud of this invention and it became the foundation for the first of three biotechnology companies that I had a part in launching.
In 1986, I began a wonderful affiliation with the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico. The institute was a brand new enterprise comprised of an interdisciplinary group of extremely smart people who started a new science called complexity. None of us knew exactly what this new science was but we all knew it was very important. I like to joke about it now and say that our mixture of passion and utter confusion drove our creativity for a decade as we struggled to invent this new area of science.
After retiring from the University of Pennsylvania and the Santa Fe Institute several years ago, Bob Estes, now the assistant director of IBI, invited me up to Calgary. When iCORE found out that I was in the vicinity and that I might be moveable, they asked me to make a proposal through the U of C to iCORE. And to my utter delight, here I am — heading up the first institute of its kind in Canada.

Your new institute is for biocomplexity and informatics. What exactly do you mean by biocomplexity?

It turns out that the behaviour of genetic networks depends critically on the level at which the genes are connected. If they are heavily connected the system is chaotic, and if they are only lightly connected the system is ordered. An attractive hypothesis is that biological systems, like genetic networks, flourish in a “transition zone” between the ordered and chaotic regimes. I call this transitional phase the complex regime. So biocomplexity refers to biological systems that thrive in this balance between order and chaos. Other examples include the immune and neural systems.

What is the connection between biocomplexity and informatics?

An example of information processing or informatics at a biological level is the coordination that must happen within and between cells during the development of a fertilized egg.

The question is whether or not we can extract the informatics out of the biology to help us build things like computer networks and robots. I actually think we’re on the verge of a technological revolution in which biocomplexity will guide the science of information towards the creation of novel life forms that can do jobs for us. Ethical issues aside, I think that a revolution of this type has the potential to be every bit as dramatic as the computer revolution.

Please describe some of the institute’s objectives.

Ultimately I would love to attain some of the excitement of interdisciplinary collaboration that we experienced during the first decade of the Santa Fe Institute. George Cowan, the first president of SFI, said something very wise:

“ The best way to get extraordinary science done is to get extraordinary scientists together then stand aside.” One of my main goals for the IBI is to find a way to marry a sense of direction with the process of putting together a bunch of smart people and then stepping out of their way.

What kind of applications can you see emerging from this research?

While I am acutely aware that I am a neophyte in this, I believe that cancer and stem cell research is one of the most prominent applications. Figuring out how genetic networks regulate cell differentiation will help us find better methods of controlling harmful forms of differentiation like cancer.

Apart from yourself, can you give us some details about the people who are/will be involved with the institute either directly or indirectly?

I recently initiated a fruitful network of email collaborations with about 20 scientists. This “virtual institute” is a great source of talent will be a very real part in the IBI.

Apart from myself, the IBI currently consists of assistant director Bob Estes, postdoctoral fellow Andres Ribeiro and research assistant Chris Davis. We have room for six to seven graduate students, four to five postdocs and three other full-time faculty members.

How can the university community find out more about the institute? Will there be lectures/seminars/open houses?

Our website is: www.ibi.ucalgary.ca/. Given our mandate of interdisciplinary collaboration, the issue of our interface with the university is extremely important. We have just started making contacts within the university. We’ll be giving courses and lectures and plan to have a series of open houses where people can stop by our office.