Post-fire regeneration in Yosemite National Park (image: Cristofer Maximilian/Unsplash)

Abraham Trembley, a mathematician from Geneva, Switzerland, first reported on biological regeneration in 1740 when he observed a bisected Hydra — a freshwater polyp — reconstitute itself. In the centuries that have followed, science has identified a host of species, from starfish to salamanders, with regenerative capabilities. But despite the years of study into the phenomenon, science still lacks a comprehensive theory of regeneration. 

All biological complex adaptive systems, which range from multicellular organisms to ecosystems, will inevitably totter, either from aging cells or external forces like an out-of-control wildfire. In this moment of uncertainty, two paths emerge. 

“If a system does not regenerate, it will fail,” says SFI External Professor Manfred Laubichler (Arizona State University). “However, if we better understand regenerative dynamics, we may be able to steer distressed systems toward regeneration and away from failure.”

Whether a system veers in the direction of regeneration or failure — death, in the case of cells or organisms, or system collapse, for ecosystems or communities — depends largely on its robustness, or its ability to remain stable in the face of disturbance. 

The relationship between regeneration, robustness, and failure is the focus of an SFI working group running February 22–24, 2023. Laubichler has organized the meeting alongside SFI Science Board Member Susan Fitzpatrick and Jane Maienschein (Arizona State University). The participants will discuss regeneration, robustness, and failure through the lens of an information-theoretic framework, which is an approach to understanding complex systems through mathematical representations. 

“There is a certain amount of information that a system holds — an essential amount of information that is needed to regenerate,” explains Fitzpatrick. “We want to know if that information can be quantified or measured.” 

In an era of unprecedented stress — from climate change, habitat loss, novel viruses, and more — science needs a theory of regeneration. Such a theory would help managers or administrators address resilience, for human and ecosystem health. The working group hopes to take an important first step by quantifying what makes a system resilient and describing how that informs the system’s ability to adapt and regenerate in response to disturbance.

Read about the working group, Is There a Cross-scale Theory of Regeneration and Failure for Complex Adaptive Systems? 


This event is partially supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Grant Number 220020491, Adaptation, Aging, and the Arrow of Time.