Evolving a new way of looking at cell classification

ASU-Santa Fe Institute workshops focus on new frameworks of cell types

November 5, 2015

Cells have traditionally been categorized based on location within an organism, their structure, function or even developmental history. But recent advances suggest there might be better and more uniform approaches to cell classification and understanding.

Researchers at the Arizona State University-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems recently convened a workshop to sort out some of the details of a new classification system for cells. Their work was recently reported on in Science magazine. "Fibroblast (BPAE)" by Heiti Paves. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

“Ultimately what determines the function of each cell or each cell type are the genes that are turned on in that cell,” said Manfred Laubichler, an ASU President’s Professor of theoretical biology and the history of biology. Laubichler also is co-director of the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex Systems.

A better theory of gene regulation within cells is needed in order to understand how cell types have evolved and how they might change in the future, he said.

“The emergence of a new cell type represents an evolutionary innovation,” he explained. “This makes it all the more important to clearly redefine what a cell type is.”

As they made progress in their individual fields and addressed similar questions, experts in cell biology, evolutionary biology and systems biology developed different concepts and terminology in their work. Unifying these definitions and approaches could lead to a more robust theory of cell evolution. Jump-starting this effort was a goal of the workshop.

Laubichler and colleagues Günter Wagner (Yale University) and Detlev Arendt (European Molecular Biological Laboratory) organized the working group, which was hosted by SFI. It brought together experts in these fields to develop a more unified understanding of cell type evolution.

The group is now working on a perspectives paper summarizing their deliberations that will be the foundation of a more focused research effort to tackle the problem of cell type diversity and evolution. 

“Another reason why we need to focus on these questions now is the increased prominence of cellular reprogramming and regenerative medicine,” said Laubichler, who is also a member of ASU’s Center for Evolution and Medicine. “Without evolutionary perspectives these efforts are prone to miss important constraints and future directions. This way, the theoretical work we are pursuing at the SFI connects to ASU’s new focus on evolutionary medicine.”

Innovation was the focus of a second workshop, also held at SFI and organized by the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complexity. The goal of this group, according to Laubichler, was to explore how to transform innovation — thought of as a search process sorting through endless combinatorial possibilities — into formal, even predictive models.

The workshop built on an earlier ASU-SFI effort that explored the drivers of invention and the challenges of building a theory of innovation.

“With universal problems, such as innovation, we need a broad interdisciplinary discussion to grasp the fundamental nature of the problem so that we can arrive at deep theoretical insights,” said Laubichler, who co-organized the meeting with ASU collaborator Jose Lobo. “And we need those insights to have real-world impacts.”

A few participants have taken steps, using data on patented inventions or cell metabolic pathways to build empirical search spaces. The goal is a general framework for innovation that could arise from similarities the participants and others observe in their separate search spaces.

Lobo pointed to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as a possible framework.

If we can begin to build a similarly general theory of innovation, he said, “it will help us explain how things emerge and thrive.”

Some think the very nature of innovation obviates prediction. Still, certain features of companies and societies make them more inventive and innovative than others, Lobo explained. Whether such a theory is possible will be much discussed, but “all agree, in the absence of a good theory we won’t be able to make predictions.”

These workshops come right after ASU, in partnership with the SFI and the Complex Systems Society, hosted a large international conference on complex systems science.

“The ASU-SFI collaboration is off to a great start, building on long-term close connections,” said Laubichler, who with ASU professors Rob Boyd, Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Rob Page and Sander van der Leuuw, is an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Sun Devil Fitness offers hidden gems

Gaining muscle and building a better you has never been easier with these unique programs

November 5, 2015

With the holiday season around the corner, food is everywhere; however, just because you join in on the holiday treats does not mean you need to stay indoors and let your health fall to the wayside.

The four ASU Sun Devil Fitness Centers host several amenities for strength training and cardiovascular health, but it's the lesser known gems offering specialized self-improvement that make visiting these centers a must year-round. Sun Devil Outdoors on their hike in Hurricane, Utah Sun Devil Outdoors on their hike through Hurricane, Utah. Download Full Image

Outdoor Recreational 

Sun Devil Out Doors takes you out of the gym and onto adventure, as you explore a variety of locations.

According to Amanda Smith, assistant director of Sun Devil Fitness, the program started out on the West campus, and expanded this last year into Tempe. Her primary mission is to expose the people of Arizona to their state and adventure. 

“Sun Devil Outdoors is a program offered to ASU Students and the community members that essentially creates adventures, for anyone and everyone,” Smith said. “And these adventures are taken in a group, and helps people who wouldn’t usually have the confidence or means to take these experiences.”

With one flat fee, varying in price with each trip, they provide all the necessary equipment and training for the trip.

Paige Cloyd, an ASU sophomore, went on one of the recent trips to Utah. She enjoyed her trip so much that she hopes to commit deeper with the program.

“It was such an incredible time, it was so well planned and we’re able to see so many things,” Cloyd said. “I was nervous at first, but it’s so worth it. I’m hoping one day to become a trip leader.”

The Sun Devil Outdoor Program's past trips include camping, backpacking and even zip lining. Last weekend SDOD took a day hike ending with a yoga session in the gorgeous scenery of Sedona. Still, their best trips are yet to come.

On Nov. 6-8 they will camp in the Superstitions Mountains, and on Jan. 3-10 they will take a roadtrip to meet with the staff of University of California, San Diego to finish their trip in Bahia de Los Ángeles, México. In Mexico, they will spend a few days kayaking along the sea as each adventurer takes part in primitive camping.

For additional information or to enroll, visit https://fitnessonline.asu.edu/.

If the great outdoors isn’t your thing, however, you can try these other unique instructional classes on campus.

Team Challenge

Success often means working together, but sometimes operating as a team can prove difficult. With this program building a team has never been easier. Hosted by a trained facilitator, Team Challenge helps promote groups to think creatively and problem solve together; guiding your group towards better communication, leadership, trust and eventually personal growth. How they do this is, perhaps, the best part: through fun and games. Available on all campuses.


Take upper body health into your own hands with this workshop. The handstand workshop in Tempe showcases the many benefits of using only your abdominal core and palms to hold you up. 

To a casual observer it may seem like a child pastime, but it actually requires a great deal of arm, shoulder and upper back strength. Beginner exercises use a wall as a support, but with a few dedicated sessions a person could find themselves turning their workout upside down — perhaps, even with one hand. Available on the Tempe campus.

Self Defense

Have you ever thought, “I’m not enough like Batman?” Well, after this class you won’t. It may not offer capes and cowls, but this dominant martial art will have you feeling safer in times of danger. 

Krav Maga, the Hebrew translation of “Contact Combat,” is the brutal but practical-defense martial art that specializes in quickly immobilizing your attacker. This instructional program at ASU focuses on neutralizing dangerous situations as quickly as possible.

The assortment of classes will provide the defense and discipline to equip you against the injustices of the night, while building self-esteem and keeping you safe.

Classes are held for both men and women, and a women's only class is offered. Available on the Tempe campus.

Cooking Classes

Living healthy involves two vital concepts: good exercise and a better diet.

ASU registered dietitian Jenna Heller makes sure your body takes in the best. This Sun Devil alumna finds her passion in helping people develop their healthiest self. Her instructional courses include lessons in constructing a plant diet, juicing and even a paleo diet. The paleo diet takes its name from the paleolithic era of man, dating nearly 2.5 million years ago, focusing on the intake of what a person may have eaten during that time, such as: fruits, vegetables berries, nuts, meats and seafood.

Heller’s class is free to attend. Offered this fall, and the upcoming spring term, with the next session on juicing being held from 5:30-6:30 p.m., Nov. 12. Available on the West campus.

Underwater Hockey

Have you ever felt like hockey didn’t have enough swimming? Well this game, also known as Octopush, invites people to discover the spirited co-ed event of underwater puck handling.

The game originated in the United Kingdom, and managed to paddle its way to the states with a style of play designed to focus on teamwork, as you attempt to perform breathe-defying feats underwater to achieve victory over the opponent.

Armed with only a snorkel, fins and a pusher (stick) this six-person team exercise promotes fun for all. 

Sessions are Monday and Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. on the Tempe campus.

Stress Class

Nobody said life is easy, and we’re reminded too often that it can wear us down. This class helps manage the stress in life.   

It focues on the Psoas, the principal muscle associated with physical stability (also known as the “muscle of the soul), which often gets neglected causing stress and tension. Since this part of the body connects to the rest of you, the upkeep is just as important as other parts of your body. Working on it means a more grounded and relaxed disposition. 

So whether it’s midterms, mounting paperwork or just life in general, this two-hour class from 2- 4 p.m. on Saturdays can help alleviate the pressures of the day. Available on the Tempe campus.

Chen Taijiquan

Despite being proclaimed as a martial art taking a lifetime to master, beginners are welcomed and encouraged to try Chen Taijiquan.  

This distinctive branch of Tai-Chi emphasizes controlled movements as a meditative exercise benefitting both mind and body. Taken from a martial art, and adapted specifically as a health regiment made this discipline accessible to a larger community.

This program offers the basic techniques to help achieve a style of strength, balance, coordination and understanding of basic Taiji principles.

With a wealth of classes offered there are two types of sessions differentiating in length and difficulty. 

Classes started Oct. 6 and will end Dec. 6. Available on the Tempe campus.

Intro to Four Way Handball

This class will teach you a skill and exercise great for cardio. Fast paced with its attention to coordination, a one-man team goes hand-to-hand with an opponent in an enclosed room for ball supremacy.

This crafty activity has roots dating back to Egyptian times — some historians considering it the parent of tennis.

Dedicated players will expect an increase in cardio-respiratory health, strength, endurance and balance, and even flexibility.

Transform yourself to the ace of handball today: sessions are on Monday and Wednesdays with $20 entry. Available on the Tempe campus.

Reporter, ASU Now