July 8, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

It’s Networks All the Way Down

New ways of seeing biology are finding life is full of networks.  At both ends of the complexity scale – from humans to bacteria – complex interactions are the rule.  Two teams studying different phenomena had the same reaction – astonishment.

  1. Bottom-up complexity:  Who would have thought one of the simplest life forms has a more complex network of signaling molecules than man?  “We were absolutely stunned,” remarked Gerhard Manning, a bioinformatics researcher, at the level of complexity in a network of tyrosine kinases in a single-celled microbe.  Science Daily said of the organism studied, Monosiga brevicollis, “It commands a signaling network more elaborate and diverse than found in any multicellular organism higher up on the evolutionary tree, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have discovered.”
        Speaking of evolution, this organism was selected precisely because of its evolutionary position.  The choanoflagellates are thought to be basal members of microbes about to evolve into multicellular animals.  Imagine the shock seeing network complexity at that level:

    With all this new information, one obvious question remains unanswered: what is a single-celled organism doing with all this communications gear?  “We don’t have a clue!” says Manning, “but this discovery is the first step in finding out.”

    The article title was telling: “Can You Hear Me Now?  Primitive Single-Celled Microbe Expert In Cellular Communication Networks.”

  2. Top down complexity:  This is your brain on diffusion imaging: see Technology Review.  A refined method of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that follows water molecules as they move through neurons is allowing scientists to see, for the first time, the network connections in the brain.  The crude new views of this non-invasive imaging technique have revealed a core region in the back of the brain, reported Emily Singer, that seems to act as a central hub.  The number of connections within the hub as well as outside suggest an important function.  “What goes on there?” asked one of the neuroscientists at Indiana University.
        This imaging technique promises new looks at the complexity of the human brain.  Before, MRI and CAT scan images showed only shadows of the surfaces of regions of the brain.  Now, diffusion imaging promises to reveal the network connections of the brain’s trillions of neurons.  (Note: in the illustration, multiple layers of complexity have been subtracted in order to focus on certain features.)  By comparing normal brains to victims of autism and Alzheimer’s disease, researchers hope to understand what went wrong in the network wiring in those debilitating conditions.
        Singer called the newly-discovered hub a kind of Grand Central Station.  Even in a resting state, your hub is a hubbub of traveling signals.

Only in the last few years has networking become a biological buzzword.  Proteins form networks.  Genes form networks.  Neurons form networks.  Ecological members form networks.  Networks are characterized not so much by the nodes but by the relationships between the nodes.  By nature they are “information-rich” structures.

It was way too funny to see the Salk guys admit they don’t have a clue figuring out where a microbe got all that complex communications gear.  If they don’t have a clue about what is right in front of their eyes, what can we trust of their claims about the unobservable past?
    Creation scientists might also have been stunned by this discovery, but in a different way.  They would be delighted with yet another display of the Creator’s wisdom.  Evolutionists, on the other hand, are stunned with a tinge of dismay.  Their delight in discovery is tempered by an unexpected level of complexity in an organism that was supposed to primitive and simple.  Dumbstruck, they flounder about for an explanation of how it could have evolved.  That calls for a new word: they’re dumbfloundering.

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