Stress is a general condition of life. From bacteria to plants to vertebrates, living things often find themselves in a state of stress. But what exactly does this mean? It’s pretty easy to come up with lots of examples of stress: being too hot or too cold, not having enough food or energy, not having enough water/being thirsty, being sick or having parasites, being attacked by a predator, or fighting with another organism. However, finding a broad yet rigorous definition of stress that applies across many biological systems has been a major challenge.
Digging into alternative ways to define stress was a major focus of the Editor’s Challenge Stress Workshop at SICB 2018 in San Francisco. Based on our discussions at the workshop, a team of eight (!) of us (see citation below for all the co-authors) led by Marco Del Giudice dug into the advantages and implications of a systems biology approach to defining stress. Specifically, we addressed at how looking at stress through the lens of control theory might allow us to define stress broadly (i.e., in a way that applies to many different biological systems, from bacteria to vertebrates). Control theory is a well-developed field, especially in engineering applications, and its terminology and approach to defining systems, including various types of control systems, informational flow, and responses to disturbance integrates well with our understanding of stress systems in living organisms.
This approach also provides some interesting potential extensions, including implications for conditioning and hermetic responses, trade-offs or constraints in the design of stress systems, and the effects of novel stress-inducing conditions, including those resulting from anthropogenic change. The paper was just accepted by Integrative and Comparative Biology (ICB) and should be officially out by the end of the year!
In addition to getting to work with amazing folks on this project, one real highlight for me was the process of creating and publishing the paper. Starting with a highly interactive, intense, all-day workshop and then collaborating for several months, almost exclusively online, was a new experience for me and a positive one. My experience makes me look forward to working with another great group of scholars at the NSF-funded “Invasion Biology Rules of Life” workshop this coming spring!