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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.
(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 collective behavior proposed initiating a new synthesis of the regulation, dynamics and evolution of collective behavior from microbes to metazoans. The conference helped 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 brought 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 “collective behavior” 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 benefitted multiple disciplines and led 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 required 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 provided 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. Organizers felt that there is no other conference format that could achieve these goals.