04 August 2010 by Catherine Brahic
For generations, the Avidians have been cloning themselves quietly in a box. They’re not perfect, but most of their mutations go unnoticed. Then something remarkable happens. One steps forward, and that changes everything. Tens of thousands of generations down the line, some of its descendents will evolve memory.
Avidians are not microbes, or sci-fi alien life forms. They are the digital offspring of Charles Ofria and colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. They “live” in a computer world called Avida, and replicate using strings of coded computer instructions instead of DNA. But in many ways they are similar to real life: they compete with each other for resources, replicate, mutate, and evolve. They – or things like them – might eventually evolve to become artificially intelligent life forms.
Similar to microbes, Avidians take up very little space, have short generation times, and can evolve new traits to out-compete their rivals. Unlike microbes, their evolution can be stopped at any time, reversed, repeated, and the precise sequence of mutations that led to the new trait can be dissected. “They’re wonderful evolutionary pets,” says Ben Kerr, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle……………………………………