Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Functioning and Failure of Adaptive Biological Networks

Date: April 1 - 3, 2009

Organizers: Thilo Gross (Dresden) und Kay Hamacher (Darmstadt)

The workshop aimed to connect recent advances from the emerging field of adaptive networks to important current questions in biological systems. Many biological systems can be described as networks, sets of discrete nodes connected by links. Examples of such systems range from biological populations, connected by ecological interactions, to proteins, connected by biochemical interactions. It is widely agreed that almost all such networks are dynamical in at least two ways. First, the specific pattern of nodes and links, i.e., the network topology, can change dynamically over time (dynamics OF the network). For instance a population of predators may learn to hunt a different species of prey in the ecological example. Second, internal properties of the network nodes can change dynamically while being subject to a coupling determined by the network topology (dynamics ON networks). For instance one can imagine that the population sizes of predator and prey populations change in response to predation and other ecological interactions. Networks that combine both types of dynamics are called adaptive networks.
The network hype in the physical literature has revealed fundamental insights both in the dynamics OF networks and in the dynamics ON networks. However, only very recently both strands of network research have been brought together in the investigation of adaptive networks. Since almost all real world networks are adaptive, the challenge to understand adaptive networks has almost at the same time emerged in many disciplines, including sociology, mathematics, economy, physics, computer science, engineering and biology. Adaptive networks are therefore currently attacked from many different directions with the tools that different disciplines have established. One recurrent theme that appears in these studies is the amazing ability of adaptive networks to self-organize to complex global dynamics and topologies based on simple local rules.
As almost all biological systems constitute adaptive networks and self-organization is the major hallmark characterizing biology, it is conceivable that the dynamics of adaptive networks could be central to the functioning and failure of many important biological networks. To advance this idea the workshop gathered a small group of researchers working on adaptive biological networks on different scales. Among the 20 participants from 7 countries were several renowned experts who have made key breakthroughs in adaptive network research as well as several enthusiastic students embarking in this direction. The workshop was highly interdisciplinary, involving apart from physicists, mathematicians and biologists, also chemists, social scientists, ecologists and traffic engineers.
Despite the diverse audience, the interest in biological systems and adaptive networks shared by all participants provided the ground for close productive interaction. In addition there were several additional points of overlap that became evident during the workshop. For example one participant expressed his surprise to meet another scientist working on the epidemiology of fungal tree diseases, albeit from a very different angle.
The combination of highly diverse backgrounds and strong commonalities in the research interests gave the workshop an open, stimulating and enjoyable atmosphere. This atmosphere and the uniformly high quality of presentations turned the workshop into an experience that was both very entertaining and highly productive.
After returning home we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from many participants, praising the new interdisciplinary perspectives they have gained and the new possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations that have been opened. We fully agree with these sentiments and would like to thank the ZiF for providing this unique opportunity.

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