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
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
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
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
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
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.
new institute is for biocomplexity and informatics. What exactly
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
the system is chaotic, and if they are only lightly connected the
system is ordered. An attractive hypothesis is that biological systems,
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
this balance between order and chaos. Other examples include the
immune and neural systems.
What is the
between biocomplexity and informatics?
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.
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
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
every bit as dramatic as the computer revolution.
describe some of the institute’s
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
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
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
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.
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
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.