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Complexity: the organizing principle at the interface of biological (dis)order

Bhat, Ramray, Pally, Dharma
Journal of genetics 2017 v.96 no.3 pp. 431-444
amino acids, biologists, nucleotides, phenotype
The term complexity means several things to biologists. When qualifying morphological phenotype, on the one hand, it is used to signify the sheer complicatedness of living systems, especially as a result of the multicomponent aspect of biological form. On the other hand, it has been used to represent the intricate nature of the connections between constituents that make up form: a more process-based explanation. In the context of evolutionary arguments, complexity has been defined, in a quantifiable fashion, as the amount of information, an informatic template such as a sequence of nucleotides or amino acids stores about its environment. In this perspective, we begin with a brief review of the history of complexity theory. We then introduce a developmental and an evolutionary understanding of what it means for biological systems to be complex. We propose that the complexity of living systems can be understood through two interdependent structural properties: multiscalarity of interconstituent mechanisms and excitability of the biological materials. The answer to whether a system becomes more or less complex over time depends on the potential for its constituents to interact in novel ways and combinations to give rise to new structures and functions, as well as on the evolution of excitable properties that would facilitate the exploration of interconstituent organization in the context of their microenvironments and macroenvironments.