Robustness and autonomy in biological systems: how regulatory mechanisms enable functional integration, complexity and minimal cognition through the action of second-order control constraints

In M. Bertolaso, S. Caianiello & E. Serrelli (eds.), Biological Robustness. Emerging Perspectives from within the Life Sciences. New York, USA: Springer. pp. 123-147 (2018)
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Living systems employ several mechanisms and behaviors to achieve robustness and maintain themselves under changing internal and external conditions. Regulation stands out from them as a specific form of higher-order control, exerted over the basic regime responsible for the production and maintenance of the organism, and provides the system with the capacity to act on its own constitutive dynamics. It consists in the capability to selectively shift between different available regimes of self-production and self-maintenance in response to specific signals and perturbations, due to the action of a dedicated subsystem which is operationally distinct from the regulated ones. The role of regulation, however, is not exhausted by its contribution to maintain a living system’s viability. While enhancing robustness, regulatory mechanisms play a fundamental role in the realization of an autonomous biological organization. Specifically, they are at the basis of the remarkable integration of biological systems, insofar as they coordinate and modulate the activity of distinct functional subsystems. Moreover, by implementing complex and hierarchically organized control architectures, they allow for an increase in structural and organizational complexity while minimizing fragility. Finally, they endow living systems, from their most basic unicellular instances, with the capability to control their own internal dynamics to adaptively respond to specific features of their interaction with the environment, thus providing the basis for the emergence of minimal forms of cognition.



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