SU professor awarded prestigious German fellowship

“For me this is the icing on the cake.”

This is how Prof Jannie Hofmeyr of the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University (SU) describes the prestigious fellowship at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, or Wiko) awarded to him recently. He will be a fellow at the Institute from 15 September 2014 to 15 July 2015, and intends to write a book about his research of the past few years which deals with the remarkable ability of living organisms to produce themselves. He considers this characteristic of self-fabrication, which underpins processes of growth, reproduction and recovery, as the key to life.

“Through my involvement at STIAS, I constantly see the invaluableness of such a fellowship at a leading institute for advanced study. I always dreamt of having the luxury to work uninterrupted on a project for 10 months in an environment where one rub shoulders with world-class researchers from different disciplines on a daily basis,” says Hofmeyr, Director of SU’s Centre for Studies in Complexity (CSC), an interdisciplinary initiative that forms part of the University’s HOPE Project.

Wiko is one of the most prestigious research institutes in the world and has since 1981 given internationally recognized researchers the opportunity to work on a chosen research project for a year. The Institute also promotes collaboration between researchers from different countries and disciplines. Fellowships are awarded to eminent researchers with the best proposals in their respective fields. The Institute invites researchers to submit proposals.

Prof Jannie Hofmeyr

Previous South African recipients of Wiko fellowships include Prof Dirkie Smith of the Faculty of Theology at SU, the well-known writer Antjie Krog, and the late Prof Gideon Louw of the Department of Botany and Zoology at SU.

International Society for Biosemiotic Studies

In addition to the fellowship, Hofmeyr was elected as member of the governing body of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies in July. The Society was established in 2005, and has since promoted collaboration between researchers in different disciplines working on biosemiotics.

According to Hofmeyr, biosemiotics is the study of signs and meanings in biological organisms. The idea of signs is not limited to humans, but can also be associated with all forms of life, even with single cells, he says. “In biosemiotics the focus is mainly on biological codes, from organic codes such as the genetic code, to neural codes in organisms with nervous systems, and to cultural codes of man.”

“The genetic code is the oldest code of life and makes it possible for the cell to decode the information stored in DNA to the amino acid sequences in proteins. Seen from a biosemiotic perspective, DNA is the sign and protein the meaning.”

Hofmeyr says more and more organic codes are being discovered today, such as the signal transduction code whereby a signal from the outside, such as a hormone, decode a signal within the cell, the so-called second messenger.

According to him, all organic codes are arbitrary conventions that connect two independent molecular worlds. He says the discovery of these codes represents a new mechanism of evolution, namely evolution by natural conventions, alongside evolution by natural selection. “Every major transition in the evolution of living organisms coincided with the origin of a new biological code.”

“Organic codes give us a new lens to look at biology. Whereas the process of copying of DNA can lead to relative novelties, an organic code makes absolute innovations possible and, with it, an increase in the complexity of life.”

Hofmeyr is currently establishing the new field of code biology as well as a new association, the International Society of Code Biology, together with STIAS fellow Prof Marcello Barbieri of the University of Ferrara in Italy and Dr Joachim de Beule of the Free University in Brussels.