Schedule May 18, 2011
Encoding Contingency
Kenneth Kosik, UCSB

Perhaps the most well-known use of the term "contingency" in biology comes from Stephen J Gould who viewed evolution as the product of a series of contingencies that occurred under a set of initial and boundary conditions so unlikely to be repeated that if one rewound the "tape of life" the outcomes of evolution such as human beings would not happen again. The fractious debate that has erupted over this radical idea also operates at the cellular and molecular levels where evolutionary studies offer a deeper view of contingency. A particularly critical juncture in the tree of life was the appearance of multi-cellular organisms. The unicellular lifestyle is one in which a single cell is fully competent to deal with environmental complexity and its many contingencies. Metazoans are collections of specialized cells that can only survive in the context of the organism and these cells are collectively required for the survival of the organism. The cellular to organismal transition in the hierarchy of biological organization is, in part, encoded in a novel genomic system of non-coding RNAs that is associated with cell specialization in multi-cellular organisms and the unique contingencies encountered by specialized cells.

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