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Understand Scaling of Embodied Cognition

What is the compelling question or challenge?

How do individual cells harness the laws of physics to form complex functional bodies? How is cellular information-processing & signaling machinery integrated toward building and repairing anatomy?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Free-living unicellular organisms manage exquisitely complex morphology, physiology, and behavior (even memory, problem-solving) – all of this is done in a single computationally and metabolically optimized cell. Somehow these individual cells join together into multicellular plants and animals and apply their information-processing skills toward the production and maintenance of complex anatomies. This is a radical expansion of the boundary of the “self”. In a metazoan animal, cells must cooperate to build a body during embryogenesis, recognize damage, and rebuild any missing structures (e.g., leg regeneration in salamanders), stopping when precisely the right form has been achieved. This process of embryogenesis and regeneration requires an understanding not only the hardware (cells created by cell proliferation and differentiation), but also the software (network cell dynamics that enable cells to recognize body patterning states) and to gauge when to repair and when to stop.

While the molecular pathways by which tissues are induced (i.e., differentiation) is well understood, and we are beginning to understand developmental outcomes at the systems-level, profound mysteries exist about the decision-making capacities of cells and cell collectives: how does life harness the basic properties of physics to enable cell collectives to scale their activity toward global goals? How does genetics relate to the biophysical processes that implement the pattern-editing throughout developmental and regenerative biology? The ocean of ignorance includes questions like: how do subcellular processes (gene-regulatory networks, cytoskeletal dynamics) underlie cells’ abilities to solve problems, form memories, and dynamically adjust to stressors and changing environments? What are the cognitive/computational limits of single cell organisms and somatic cells? How do these capacities scale up to the remarkably adaptive, plastic capabilities of self-repairing metazoan bodies? How does the cooperation of individual cells break down during cancer, where cells act individually and treat the body as the “environment”? Can this state be reversed (i.e., tumor reprogramming)? What are the limits of morphogenesis – can any shape be constructed (artificial living machines) if we know the code by which target morphology (the large-scale anatomy to which cells build and repair) is encoded? What is the relationship between the genome and the emergent pattern homeostasis that builds a functional body (how widely can the body be made to diverge from its genomic default)? What are the functional limits of anatomical plasticity and can the lessons learned from these models be translated into robotics?

These questions cannot be answered without understanding the information processing that enables the scaling of computational and biophysical properties from single cells to self-editing bodies. They are currently addressed piecemeal by a range of disciplines including game theory, evolutionary biology, cell/developmental biology, basal cognition, neurobiology, synthetic biology, and information theory. This diverse, highly-interdisciplinary area would benefit from a concerted effort to integrate it into a coherent field to make decisive progress on truly fundamental questions. This Big Question is an example of the frontier of modern science, in which former barriers between disciplines are transcended through deep consilience between experts in diverse disciplines. Key research directions include the biophysics of primitive cognition in body cells and their relationship to the pathways that regulate body morphogenesis, the development of top-down control strategies for growth and form (designer artificial living machines), and the investigation of the non-genetic bioelectrical and physiological software that is being shown to enable reprogramming of body-wide outcomes without genomic editing.

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