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Growth dynamics – what unites growth processes of cells and entire ecosystems? (31.01.2020)

The Alexander von Humboldt foundation has awarded Dr. Ian A. Hatton a Humboldt Research Fellowship. In a two-year research stay at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig, Hatton plans to expand his studies of biological scaling and growth dynamics. In a joint project with the Max Planck research group leader Dr. Matteo Smerlak the post-doctoral scientist will investigate biological growth dynamics across a multitude of systems and scales in the hope of identifying unifying aspects of their development.

Growth dynamics are relevant to a plethora of systems within the life sciences. The underlying principles have applicability across all levels of organization: from organelles, to cells, tissues and whole organisms all the way to populations and ultimately entire ecosystems. A variety of growth features across a diverse array of species and systems are strikingly similar. Understanding the structure and stability of these common aspects of growth dynamics offers unique insights into biological theory ranging from ecological interactions to evolutionary processes. Aside from comprehending the principles which lead to universal patterns across multiple scales of organization, a more thorough grasp of natural growth processes could also uncover the factors which lead to abnormal embryonic development or the spread of disease.

Recent research by Hatton has shown that the growth of embryos, individuals, populations, and communities exhibits an apparently universal power law scaling with an exponent of approximately ¾. This incredible and unexpected parallel in growth-mass scaling is quite robust and spans 20 orders of magnitude, ranging from bacteria to whales. For the past several decades researchers assumed that this pattern followed the body mass scaling of metabolism, either due to the geometry of vascular supply or surface-volume constraints on heat dissipation. Current work by Hatton and colleagues has shown that instead, metabolism likely adjusts to fuel growth, reversing the order of causality from what has long been assumed. Thus, further insights into the dynamics of growth are required to elucidate the underlying causes for these similarities in growth scaling.

Hatton studied biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. After receiving his PhD, he worked at the National Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Korea and became a research associate at Princeton University. Before joining the MPI MiS in January 2020, he was a research scholar at the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals in Barcelona, Spain. The Humboldt Research Fellowship allows Hatton to gain access to the resources and collaboration network essential to study the unifying aspects of biological dynamics across diverse systems. His experience of physiological and ecological processes is vital in advancing this ambitious project together with Sofja Kovalevskaja group leader Matteo Smerlak.

Aside from investigating the causes of similar scaling, Hatton also plans to delve into its implications. Together with Smerlak, he has already furthered our understanding of predator-prey systems across diverse biomes. In the future they want to gain a deeper insight into the consequences of growth scaling for competitive interactions in ecological and evolutionary dynamics. Furthermore, he plans to quantify the growth dynamics of tumor development across various tumor types.

The Alexander von Humboldt foundation promotes academic cooperation and intercultural dialog between scientists from Germany and abroad via an academic exchange programme. Each year more than 2000 scientists across the globe are invited for an academic stay in Germany by the Humboldt foundation based on their academic excellence. These scholarships are highly prestigious and have led to various longstanding collaborations. Their academic network includes more than 29000 alumni and spans across 140 countries.

Research article in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences"
Linking scaling laws across eukaryotes
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900492116

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Jana Gregor
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29.04.2020, 15:58