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Evolution is a quick process whenever the conditions are good


Renormalisation and stochastic theory
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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Selection is something like a phase transition at the error threshold, and you have similar problems as in solid state physics where you also talk about phase transitions and ferromagnetism and so on. If you go through theory you come to infinities, you come to singularities and so... so you have to do something which physicists nowadays call renormalisation of theory, and John McCaskill did this for this evolutionary theory I talked about. So he did the renormalisation and could show that you can solve all these problems, can get rid of infinities and... that's one aspect. The other aspect is he also looked at stochastic theory.  Why is stochastic theory important? At equilibrium, stochastic theory is not so important. Why? Because if you talk about a chemical equilibrium, given Avogadro's number – Avogradro's number of 1024 – it means fluctuations go with the square root of that number. So one in 1012 is something nobody can measure. So fluctuation theory of equilibrium systems only is of importance if you are dealing really with only a few molecules. We will do so later, but generally what a chemist is doing, he always works with grams or milligrams and these are still a large number of molecules. That's due to the fact that you have fluctuations on the molecule level, but they average out, and then appear finally with the square root of the number of molecules and that's a very small relative fluctuation.

In evolutionary theory this is different. Let's say you get an advantageous mutant, just one molecule.  You have a big fluctuation for this to come about, you cannot predict it and everything on the molecular scale is probabilistic. So you have the very big fluctuation for this molecule to come about, but once it is there, and it is of advantage, it will double before it decays. So you have two of them, and the two will double before they decay, you have four, eight, and you get this exponential increase and now you see the fluctuation of that one molecule to appear will very soon map on the macroscopic scale, because of that amplification method. So stochastic theory is very important in evolutionary behaviour.

[Q] In explaining, also, evolutionary behaviour.

Yes. At the beginning the favourable molecule can always decay, can just happen that right after it came about it is decomposed. But in this fluctuation theory shows that, like every air pilot knows, there is a point of no return when he accelerates his plane and if he reaches a certain speed he has to take off otherwise he would crash, he could not stop it any more. And so it is here, once after a few replications of a favourable molecule there is a point of no return and it will build up. And here you map your elementary phenomenon of one single molecule to come about, and one new one, if it is advantage, can do so, and that's very important to know, that otherwise evolution wouldn't be that efficient.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Renormalisation theory, stochastic theory, phase transitions, ferromagnetism, error threshold, evolutionary theorgy, Avogadro constant, fluctuation theory, equilibrium systems, John S McCaskill, Amedeo Carlo Avogadro

Duration: 3 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008