December 13, 2015

Ants Self-Organize, Just like Cells in Nervous Systems and Embryos, Says Deborah Gordon

Deborah Gordon, Professor of Biology at Stanford University, will speak at
ASCB 2015 on Sunday, December 13, about “The Ecology of Collective Behavior.”

(December 13, 2015)  Stanford biologist Deborah M. Gordon has spent much of the last 30 years studying the self-organization of ant colonies. Forget about queens ruling their colonies. With ants, organization is all a matter of who you bump into, what signals you pick up, and where you are at the moment. All these countless individual interactions accumulate into the colony’s collective decision-making, apportioning resources, responding to threats and opportunities, and starting new colonies, all without top down management. This classic unit-by-unit, moment-by-moment, from-the-bottom-up self-organization should be familiar to cell biologists, according to Gordon. It’s what drives many emergent biological systems—cells into tissue, neurons into nervous systems, and zygotes into embryos.

Which explains why Gordon, who has a PhD in zoology, but is not anything like a traditional entomologist, will be speaking at ASCB 2015 in the Sunday, December 13, morning symposium, “Wisdom of Crowds: Collective Decision-Making by Cells and Organisms.” Her talk is called, “The Ecology of Collective Behavior.”

As a model for emergent organization, ants have much in common with cells, Gordon explained in a recent interview. Take neurons, she said. Her lab uses a concept borrowed from neural system development to understand how an ant “counts” interactions. “How does an ant know the rate at which it meets other ants?” Gordon said. “We were thinking about that by analogy with a neuron. A neuron adds up its stimuli; from other neurons. It’s a process called a leaky integrator because each electrical impulse that a neuron receives has some decay because some charge leaked out. What happens in a neuron is that it responds to successive stimuli, if the next one happens before the previous one has decayed, then enough charge has accumulated and a neuron will fire.”

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