Evolutionary Algorithms Improve on Plants
A press release from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign talks design, but it’s really about evolution, but then really about design. Confused? So is the author of the press release, entitled “Researchers successfully simulate photosynthesis and design a better leaf.”
University of Illinois researchers have built a better plant, one that produces more leaves and fruit without needing extra fertilizer. The researchers accomplished the feat using a computer model that mimics the process of evolution. Theirs is the first model to simulate every step of the photosynthetic process.
The team programmed supercomputers. Is this how evolution works? Writer Diana Yates had no problem with this:
Using “evolutionary algorithms,” which mimic evolution by selecting for desirable traits, the model hunted for enzymes that – if increased – would enhance plant product. If higher concentrations of an enzyme relative to others improved photosynthetic efficiency, the model used the results of that experiment as a parent for the next generation of tests.
But can humans “use evolution” or is that intelligent design? (see 09/10/2007). And who decides what is desirable: the researcher, or the plant?
An obvious question that stems from the research is why plant productivity can be increased so much, Long said. Why haven’t plants already evolved to be as efficient as possible?
“The answer may lie in the fact that evolution selects for survival and fecundity, while we were selecting for increased productivity,” he said. The changes suggested in the model might undermine the survival of a plant living in the wild, he said, “but our analyses suggest they will be viable in the farmer’s field.”
So clearly, desirability is in the eye of the beholder. Since plants don’t have eyes and evolution is blind, the better metaphor might be that fitness is in the survival of the wild type.
For more on the efficiency of photosynthesis, see 07/27/2007 and 05/09/2007.
The shameless bravado of evolutionary biologists never ends. What they did had nothing to do with evolution, and everything to do with intelligent design: goals, choice, procedures, and metrics. To brag on top of that they outdid photosynthetic design by manipulating concentrations of pre-existing enzymes is too much. Make like a tree and leaf design to intelligence.