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“Every neuron is active on its own, but emergently from the brain’s actions you get a very robust and

load-balanced system,” says Navlakha. “It would be really cool to study this process of how neurons

solve the load-balance problem and use that insight to improve the fault tolerance and performance

of distributed networks, like the Internet.”

A better understanding of how load balancing in the brain works could point to ways to alleviate

disturbances, which often happen in mental illness and potentially even in sleep deprivation, where

overworked neurons are not able to rebalance work loads. To explore this and other questions related to

the brain, Navlakha has begun conversations on potential neuroscience collaborations with Salk faculty,

such as

Kenta Asahina


Xin Jin


Charles Stevens


Navlakha is also talking with Salk’s plant biologists to try to better understand how plants cooperate

or compete for available sunlight. In economics, a hypothetic scenario called the prisoner’s dilemma

explores the payoffs of cooperation versus competition. If two suspects are arrested for a crime, kept

in separate rooms and individually asked who was responsible, they can each choose to stay loyal and

not give up any information (cooperate) or betray each other (compete). If both remain loyal to each

other (cooperate) by staying silent, they get light sentences; but if both blame each other (compete),

they are deemed liars and given a medium sentence. Finally, if only one points the finger and the other

stays silent, the betrayer (competitor) goes free while the betrayed (cooperator) gets a long sentence.

While talking with Salk plant researcher

Joanne Chory

, Navlakha discovered that plants have a similar

quandary. If two plants are growing in the same space, a few outcomes can occur: both might grow

normally and share the sunlight (cooperate); both could grow aggressively in hopes of shading the other

plant (compete); or one could grow more aggressively than the other, dooming the smaller plant.

Competing uses up precious resources the plants have, so it’s not always in their best interest to

grow aggressively.

“When I first met Saket last year, my lab had been studying shade avoidance for about 10 years,” says

Chory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman

Chair in Plant Biology. “We had learned quite a bit about the process—just enough to know that

we had reached a bottleneck. We needed help because our models for how plants alter their growth

rates in the shade were becoming more complex when ideally they should become simpler.”

Chory and her postdoctoral researcher,

Ullas Pedmale

, met with Navlakha to discuss how to analyze

the large amounts of gene expression data the lab had gathered and derive a network model for how

plants grow. “Saket’s questions about whether plants cooperate or compete got us to think about shade

avoidance in a totally different way,” says Chory.

By studying how and why plants cooperate or compete with each other for sunlight in the framework of

the prisoner’s dilemma, Navlakha hopes to quantify how nature evolved these strategies in plants. Such

an understanding could provide valuable knowledge to the field of agriculture by suggesting which

species to plant next to each other—and at what times and conditions—to control growth yields.

“The big theme of all of these collaborations is in trying to develop a computational understanding of

life,” says Navlakha.

“The big theme of all of these

collaborations is in trying to develop a

computational understanding of life.”

— Saket Navlakha



Inside Salk 04 | 15