Illustration from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Tanglewood Tales' c. 1921 (Image: Virginia Frances Sterrett/Public Domain)

Research News Briefs highlight new studies from the SFI community published in the last quarter. The following briefs appeared in SFI's Fall 2020 Parallax newsletter. 


From ancient myths to modern novels, good stories capture our attention. Aristotle famously observed that a plot has a beginning, middle, and end — what other patterns might be at play?

In a new issue of PLOS One dedicated to the “science of stories,” SFI Professor Mirta Galesic and her fellow guest-editors, Peter Dodds (University of Vermont), Mohit Iyyer (UMass Amherst), and Matthew Jockers (Washington State University), collect examples of emerging computational approaches that could add a new dimension to narrative analysis. When compared to qualitative techniques, computational approaches can render “detailed, moment-by-moment analysis of semantic and emotional narratives, their internal dynamics, and their similarities and differences when compared to stories of other authors, cultures, and times.”

Read the collection at


Saving endangered ecosystems like tropical forests and drylands — and the ecological services they provide us — is one of the biggest challenges of modern times. As the loss of these systems accelerates, some scientists have proposed an unusual remedy: using synthetic biology to change ecological communities in ways that prevent their demise. But as SFI External Professor Ricard Solé and six colleagues detail in the journal Life, “ecological engineering” is rife with risks and presents a host of scientific and ethical challenges that need to be carefully considered. What would it take to successfully alter an environment — from the gut microbiome to the biosphere — to make it more hospitable to certain life forms?

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The circuits that make up the brain of a computer require a lot of energy to operate — so much so that running computers accounts for ~5 percent of U.S. energy consumption. And with demand for computing power increasing with the rapid technological advances that bring us ever-smarter cell phones, laptops, and other devices, there’s tremendous interest among manufacturers and scientists in developing more energy-efficient computer systems. A new paper by SFI Professor David Wolpert and Program Postdoctoral Fellow Artemy Kolchinsky in the New Journal of Physics describes one of the major problems that computer scientists will need to overcome to achieve that goal: how the topology of a circuit limits which parts of it can interact — and how those limitations affect the thermodynamic costs of operating the system.

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Instead of asking why we get cancer, Leonardo Oña of Osnabrück University and SFI Professor Michael Lachmann use signaling theory to explore how our bodies have evolved to keep us from getting more cancer. Their evolutionary model, published in Scientific Reports, reveals two factors in our cellular architecture that thwart cancer: the expense of manufacturing growth factors and the range of benefits delivered to cells nearby. Individual cancer cells are kept in check when there’s a high energetic cost for creating growth factors that signal cell growth. To understand the evolutionary dynamics in the model, the authors emphasize the importance of thinking about the competition between a mutant cancerous cell and surrounding cells.

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Oxygen is essential for life — all animals need it for at least some part of their life cycle. But Earth was not always the oxygen-rich planet it is today. Determining how and when the world became oxygenated enough to support animal life has been a challenge in the field of geobiology. A study, which grew out of an SFI working group, published in the journal Geobiology by SFI External Professor Douglas Erwin and colleagues, critiques six prominent arguments in the debate over the timing and role of oxygenation in the rise of animals and identifies key research questions that need to be answered.

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When a grassland becomes a desert, or a clearwater lake shifts to turbid, the consequences can be devastating for the species that inhabit them. These abrupt environmental changes, known as regime shifts, are the subject of new research in Nature Ecology & Evolution which shows how small environmental changes trigger slow evolutionary processes that eventually precipitate collapse.

Until now, research into regime shifts has focused on critical environmental thresholds, or “tipping points,” in external conditions — e.g., when crossing a certain temperature threshold triggers a sudden shift to desertification. But the new model by Catalina Chaparro-Pedraza and SFI External Professor André de Roos, both at the University of Amsterdam, reveals how a small change in the external environment, with little immediate impact, can induce slow evolutionary changes in the species that inhabit the system.

Understanding the role of evolutionary processes in regime shifts could also shed light on other complex, interdependent systems, like stock markets, which the authors demonstrate in a further analysis of data from the 2008 financial crisis.

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Catastrophic events in both nature and society tend to happen in bursts. Think earthquakes, wildfires, stock market crashes. Modeling these events can help scientists figure out how they progress. A recent paper in Physical Review Letters by University of California-Davis physicist and SFI External Professor John Rundle and colleagues explores a new model that helps explain burst dynamics. The team’s model, based on the idea of “invasion percolation” — how fluids flow into a porous area — could be used to solve problems in earthquake dynamics, statistics, and understanding infectious disease clusters.

Read the paper at