Biological regulation: controlling the system from within

Biology and Philosophy 31 (2):237-265 (2016)
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Abstract

Biological regulation is what allows an organism to handle the effects of a perturbation, modulating its own constitutive dynamics in response to particular changes in internal and external conditions. With the central focus of analysis on the case of minimal living systems, we argue that regulation consists in a specific form of second-order control, exerted over the core regime of production and maintenance of the components that actually put together the organism. The main argument is that regulation requires a distinctive architecture of functional relationships, and specifically the action of a dedicated subsystem whose activity is dynamically decoupled from that of the constitutive regime. We distinguish between two major ways in which control mechanisms contribute to the maintenance of a biological organisation in response to internal and external perturbations: dynamic stability and regulation. Based on this distinction an explicit definition and a set of organisational requirements for regulation are provided, and thoroughly illustrated through the examples of bacterial chemotaxis and the lac-operon. The analysis enables us to mark out the differences between regulation and closely related concepts such as feedback, robustness and homeostasis.

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Kepa Ruiz Mirazo
University of the Basque Country