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Revolutionary research sets out to simplify the evolutionary complexities of life

By Deborah Smith, Science Writer

Russell Standish is an expert on life and evolution. But he doesn't study the real thing.

The busy life-forms that he watches reproduce, mutate, evolve into new species, compete with each other, wipe each other out and eventually die are all artificial. They exist only in his computer.

"They are very simple, but they also can be full of surprises," says Dr Standish, of the University of New South Wales.

The sole mission of these little replicating computer programs is to create as many copies of themselves as fast as they can. As they evolve, some become parasites, using another species' program to make their own offspring. Some manage to capture the computer time allocated to their competitors.

"Another little trick is to congregate in groups. By acting together they can garner more computer resources," says Dr Standish.

As in real life, an all powerful Grim Reaper program eventually selects out the oldest or the weakest replicating programs for annihilation.

By studying very simple artificial life, Dr Standish is hoping to understand how evolution led to the extraordinary complexity of the real world.

Overseas, complexity has been almost as big a buzz topic as chaos theory. In recent years Japan, Korea and the US have poured billions of dollars into understanding it.

Scientists traditionally have broken problems down into little bits. But complexity research deals with how little bits are put together so new properties emerge, says Professor David Green, of Charles Sturt University, which offers the only courses on complexity in Australia. "It seeks to explain why the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts."

Complexity research has been poorly funded here, he says. But that is set to change.

In a move criticised by scientific bodies, the Federal Government suddenly announced this month that one-third of Australian Research Council funds for 2003 would be directed to just four areas where it believes Australia can achieve international leadership.

Complexity is one. The other three are nanotechnology, genes and proteins, and photonics.

The Australian Academy of Science is dismayed at the Government's lack of broad consultation with the scientific community before making the decision.

Setting national research priorities is important and the four areas chosen are exciting ones, says academy secretary, Michael Barber.

But the rushed decision is likely to have a serious effect on the rest of Australia's research effort, he says. "There are many other worthy areas that will be left with inadequate support."

Meanwhile complexity scientists are celebrating. "Increasing Australia's capacity in complex systems research will allow our already world-class researchers to make further breakthroughs," says Professor Green.

It will help answer questions like how the billions of nerve cells in the brain organise themselves to create consciousness, or how the DNA code controls the development of an embryo into a complete human being.

Dr Standish says much remains to be learnt about evolution, whether it is a gradual process or goes in stops and starts, inevitably leads to greater complexity or not, and what this means for biodiversity on Earth.

Complexity research also has very practical applications, the researchers say, for business management, understanding the vulnerabilities of the Internet, air-traffic and transport control, trading on the stock market, robotics and extracting new insights from the enormous amount of information building up on databases.

It could even throw light on human society, says Professor Green, and establish how new technologies will impact on social cohesion.

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