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2014 NAKFI Conference
Collective Behavior: From Cells to Societies

November 13-15, 2014, beginning with a welcome reception the evening of 11/12/2014.
Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, Irvine, CA

The NAKFI 2014 conference application process is now closed.  The application closed on March 19, 2014 at 3:00pm Pacific Time.  You will receive an email confirmation confirming receipt of your completed application by March 21, 2014.

(NAKFI would like to thank Joshua Weitz, Associate Professor; Michael Goodisman, Associate Professor; and Brian Hammer, Assistant Professor -- all of Georgia Institute of Technology -- for submitting this topic on behalf of participants of the 2009 Georgia Tech workshop on "Microbes to Metazoans: Regulation, Dynamics, and Evolution of Social Behavior.")

The NAKFI conference on social behaviors is intended to initiate a new synthesis of the regulation, dynamics and evolution of social behavior from microbes to metazoans.  The conference will help forge a dynamic research community out of scientists, engineers and doctors using disparate approaches to a common problem: how and why do molecules, cells and organisms communicate with each other and modify their activities based on these communications?  This NAKFI conference will bring together physician-scientists defining the molecular mechanisms and consequences of signaling in cell-cell communication; evolutionary biologists and ecologists studying dynamic spatial and temporal interactions of complex communities from biofilms to animal groups; quantitative and theoretical experts predicting and modeling social networks; and engineers and applied systems specialists harnessing community organization for the development of useful medical products and bioremediation strategies.    
Historically, the study of “social behaviors” has been concerned with the interactions between conspecific animals.  But the study of social behaviors is much broader than that.  Studies of sociality are actively being pursued at all scales of life: from microbial quorum sensing to swarming in animal flocks to the rise of social disorders such as autism.  Surprisingly, experts in distinct areas rarely communicate with each other.  As such, there are many “re-discoveries” of basic ideas and lost opportunities for connecting results across different scales and fields.

The cross-fertilization of ideas at this NAKFI conference will benefit multiple disciplines and lead to fundamental advances toward understanding questions such as: (i) Are there unifying principles and concepts operating in systems where social behavior occurs, if so, what are they? (ii) How do individuals in a group communicate with one another to coordinate behavior and establish division of labor and make group decisions?     A robust and rigorous approach to these and others questions laid out in this proposal requires integrated involvement of physicists, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, social scientists, physicians and engineers. It is the intellectual synergy of these experts that has the potential to move beyond prior studies that focused on “why” social behaviors evolved to questions focusing on “how” social behaviors manifest themselves at the molecular level and how social behaviors can be re-engineered in biomedical and environmental applications. 

This NAKFI conference would provide an opportunity to develop and apply concepts and explanatory mechanisms of social behavior to topics as diverse as: cancer, developmental biology, microbial pathogenesis, societal behavior, agriculture, and environmental remediation.  There is no other conference format that could achieve these goals.
Scientific Ripeness of Proposed Concept: The first major synthesis in the study of social behaviors took place in the 1960s when theorists such as W.D. Hamilton, G.R. Price, and E.O. Wilson elucidated the role of genetic similarity in the evolution of social traits (e.g., cooperation). The study of social behaviors has extended far beyond these origins and yet we still await a new synthesis. For example, microbiologists are intensively studying the regulatory pathways underlying social behavior of microbes just as cancer biologists and biomedical engineers are exploring how cell-cell communication can influence the fate of tumors.
Indeed, the ability to formulate and answer questions on the regulation, dynamics and evolution of social behaviors has been shaped by technological advances including: Genomics, enabling analysis of the genetic basis of social traits; Computing power, facilitating predictive modeling of molecules, cells and organisms; Engineering, improving the tracking and monitoring of biological entities in space and time.  Connecting researchers “new” and “old” to the study of social behaviors will: (i) introduce key theories and empirical findings to prevent “reinventing the wheel”; (ii) stake out new challenges made possible by biological discoveries and technological advances. A coupled multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach will have profound effects on research in fields as diverse as cancer, environmental biology and biotechnology. Further, advances in the study of social behaviors from microbes to metazoans will inevitably feed back to influence work on human social behavior and the impact of rapid changes in global connectivity on human health and wellbeing.
Potential IDR Team Challenges that May be Included in Concept: 1) What are the unifying principles of collective decision making? In particular, how does natural selection shape individual behavior and information processing to facilitate the emergence of collective decisions? Can we develop a conceptual framework to predict when communication systems will evolve, and what signal functions and properties will be favored in a given ecological and social context? Furthermore, collective decisions necessarily involve distinct biological entities that may have conflicting interests. How does within-group conflict influence collective decisions and constrain optimality? 2) What are the causes and consequences of individual variability within and between groups? What is the basis of behavioral plasticity and switching strategies in the context of sociality and under what circumstances should this be deterministic or stochastic?  How does the time scale for the transmission and change of information that specifies behavior relate to complexity in social behavior?  Why do human societies vary in their behavioral patterns and how does this variability relate to normal and pathological behavioral function?      3) How does social behavior originate?  This question can be considered from several perspectives. Theoretically, what are the conditions for a social trait to arise and spread in a population, for example, does it require proximity of congenics of a certain relatedness? Phylogenetically, how often have a range of behaviors originated and how stable are they? Experimentally, can we create conditions under which sociality evolves in tractable model species such as social bacteria?
Basic Areas of Understanding that Would Benefit from Interdisciplinary Approach to Concept: Many challenges of today’s world involve sociality. Sociality theories are present, not only in disciplines such as biology and sociology, but also in fields ranging from engineering to medicine.  However, one of the major obstacles to advancing integrative thinking on social behavior has been a severe lack of communication across disciplines.   Moreover, the isolation of disciplines has led to individualized terminology and often resulted in rediscoveries of the same phenomena.  Therefore, it is critical not only to define the common language and conceptual framework across different fields, but also to bring diverse expertise together to synthesize what is already there and to maximize efficiency and future discoveries.
The preconference tutorials might be organized in three categories:
Core Concepts
History of the study of social behaviors in biology
Transition from living alone to living in groups
Levels of organization among biological entities    
Social microorganisms and disease 
Re-engineering tissues to interface with human tissue  
Communication and collective migration in cancer cells     
Sociality in the environment 
Below-ground social life of plants  
Spread of infectious diseases across social networks  
Tragedy of the commons: from antibiotic resistance to dwindling fish stocks
How NAKFI Conference Format Would Benefit Concept: NAKFI’s mission is to foster cross-disciplinary interactions that transcend traditional borders, connecting otherwise thematically isolated scientists, engineers and doctors.  The conference format would (i) facilitate increased multi-disciplinary collaboration; (ii) fund truly innovative ideas that merit pilot studies; (iii) create a community of scientists working in the field of social behaviors. 
There exists a large group of researchers interested in social behaviors with very different pedigrees – as evidence, note the list of participants who collaborated in the development of the current proposal (see below).  A NAKFI conference will augment the pool of researchers who can productively collaborate in studies of social behaviors between disciplines.  Further, the types of projects stemming from the workshop that could be funded by NAKFI are likely to “fall between the cracks” at government funding agencies. In addition, the conference will likely seed review panels with a deeper understanding of the cross-disciplinary challenges in the field.     There is not an alternative conference where such a meeting of minds could take place.  For example, microbial population biologists interested in social behaviors represent a small fraction of the American Society for Microbiology.  Social insect scientists attend the Entomological Society of America meeting where social behaviors are not the centerpiece. Physician-scientists interested in the onset of social disorders or the spread of social diseases (e.g., social obesity) may not attend meetings with those interested in issues related to social behavior.  None of these groups regularly meet with engineers or computer scientists.
Stay tuned for updates on the 2014 conference topic, and for information about the application process which will be posted early 2014.