14 February 2005

Researchers at the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience have shown what many people already suspected – that as systems grow they become top heavy with management.

Communication and control systems, or "management", are often unresponsive, inefficient and costly.

Published in the prestigious international journal Science, IMB's Professor John Mattick and Dr Michael Gagen suggest, for the first time, that development of a biological bureaucracy was a complexity-limiting feature and that overcoming this was critical to the emergence of complex organisms.

Professor Mattick compared organisms to a business organisation.

"As a growing business expands, communication and control becomes limited, at which point a dedicated management system or bureaucracy is installed in order to promote efficiency," Professor Mattick said.

"As the business grows further so do the management systems, but they grow at a disproportionate rate, requiring more and more resources, eventually growing too large for the business to remain efficient.

"Effectively, these management processes place an upper limit on the size, responsiveness, and efficiency a business can attain," he said.

"Similarly, bacteria have a regulatory system, or biological bureaucracy, based on proteins and this system imposes the observed upper limit on bacterial genome size.

"The protein based regulatory system also explains the quadratic increase in the number of proteins regulating gene expression as the number of bacterial genes increases."

Professor Mattick and his team believe this provides theoretical support for the idea that the majority of our DNA, which does not encode ‘genes' (so called junk DNA), functions as an advanced regulatory system.

"We believe the evolution and development of complex organisms was dependent on the transition from an analogue protein-based regulatory system to a digital RNA-based communication and control system," he said.

"This regulatory system is required to direct the complex development of multicellular organisms, including humans.

"This also means that most of the information that specifies the differences between us as individuals and humans and other species is contained in this system.

"Ultimately this hidden RNA system is responsible for the complexity and diversity of all multicellular life."

The next question is: are humans at the upper limit of complexity for the RNA-based regulatory system?

Professor Mattick does not know the answer but thinks we are probably close to the limit. He believes that identifying the points of regulatory saturation and technological limitations is crucial to breaking through complexity barriers in biology, engineering and society.

"In our case the next big leap may come through the cooption of computers and artificial intelligence, a solution to the next level of complexity beyond the existing bounds of biology."

ENDS

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