In search of the principles of life | MIT News > Massachusetts

MIT Associate Professor Otto Cordero has always been drawn to life’s most fundamental questions. How are ecosystems built? Why do species share the work in nature? He believes these are some of the most central questions in understanding life.

“The challenge is to discover something that applies to organisms and environments — now we’re talking about a fundamental constraint of life,” says Cordero, who recently received an appointment at MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I’m very passionate about something like this. That’s the end for me. Why are things the way they are? Why do they look the way they do and why do they work the way they do? That’s because there are restrictions. It’s development. That’s how the world works. Discovering these principles is the ultimate prize.”

Cordero’s quest has taken him into research areas he could never have imagined. In doing so, he has made advances in understanding microbial ecosystems through the broad factors that determine their composition and behavior.

“I talk to a lot of physicists and they all tell the same story,” says Cordero, smiling. “Many years ago, people would look at the molecules of a gas and try to predict where each one would be, and then eventually someone figured out that there are main variables: pressure, volume, and temperature, and they all relate to each other very nicely. Now you have the gas law, and it all makes sense once you understand these variables. It’s unclear whether there are such master variables in biology, and even more so in microbial ecology, but it’s definitely worth looking for.”

take chances

Cordero grew up with his mother in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he felt scientific activity was sparse.

“I’ve never met a scientist in my life,” says Cordero. “At my university in Ecuador, there was a teacher with a PhD, and everyone called him Doctor.”

Although no one in Cordero’s family had gone to college, his mother prioritized his education, and Cordero learned from his grandfather how he valued reading and studying. These influences led him to a technical college for his bachelor’s degree.

Cordero’s childhood was humble – there were days when he had to borrow 25 cents just to catch a bus to campus. However, a pivotal moment came when he received a scholarship from Utrecht University for graduate school in the Netherlands.

“Everything is random,” says Cordero. “When I look back, I tell my students I could never have predicted where I would be in three to five years.”

Up to this point, Cordero hadn’t met many people outside of Ecuador, but he jokes that within a week he met someone from every country in Europe. He would continue to make friends from all over the world.

During his master’s degree in artificial intelligence, Cordero became interested in algorithms that describe the organization of organisms such as insects. One day he was looking through papers on the subject when a Dutch name caught his eye. It turned out to be a professor in the building next to him. He rushed over and met Professor Paulien Hogeweg, who was studying fundamental life questions using computational biology. Cordero fell in love with the subject and Hogeweg became his supervisor.

Fortune struck again when Cordero began his postdoctoral work at MIT, where he worked under longtime MIT professor Martin Polz, who is now a professor at the University of Vienna.

“In the end, I opened up this research area that I had never imagined before,” says Cordero. “I started studying microbial interactions — basically how different strains or species of bacteria interact in the environment.”

Through this work, Cordero uncovered mechanisms that microbes use to cooperate or kill off competing species, which has major implications for microbial ecosystems and perhaps major biogeochemical processes like the carbon cycle.

“From then on I was an expert in microbial interactions and evolution,” says Cordero. “I’ve worked on exciting projects, and when that happens at MIT, the environment picks you up. Everyone wants to talk to you about the next idea. It’s stimulating. I enjoy that very much. The dynamics and exposure here are unrivalled. I feel like I go to a lecture and I know what the next big paper is going to be.”

Cordero joined the MIT faculty in 2015 and continues to study microbes to study how biological systems function and evolve.

In line with this mission, in 2017 Cordero helped assemble an interdisciplinary group of researchers from around the world to search for universal principles of biology that could help explain and predict the behavior of microbial systems. The resulting collaboration, called Principles of Microbial Ecosystems (PRIME), has made strides in identifying environmental factors and constraints that help shape all ecosystems.

For example, PRIME researchers have profiled the metabolic processes of hundreds of microbial species to classify them into broader metabolic classes that can be used to accurately model and predict ecosystem behavior.

“Trying to understand the diversity of microorganisms or any organism in an environment is really complex, so the natural instinct is to start with small things – to see what an organism is doing,” says Cordero. “I wanted to look for things that can be generalized. Is there some kind of principle that explains or predicts why communities come together in this way or what we should expect in this or that environment? We see these broad patterns, and it begs the question of which variables are the right ones to study. Things become a lot easier and more predictable when you identify the right variables.”

Focus on the big picture

Cordero says he wants to break stereotypes about academics, that they all come from elite schools and wealthy families.

He also wants to show students that researchers can have fun while working hard. Before the pandemic, Cordero played in a band with students from his faculty, which consisted of two graduate students in guitar, a PhD drummer, an MBA in trumpet, and a master’s student in vocals.

“That was the highlight of the week for me,” says Cordero. “Hopefully we bring it back!”

Cordero’s personal life has also gotten a bit busier since the start of the pandemic – he now has a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old child.

Overall, whether in his personal life or his work, Cordero tries to focus on the big picture.

“If you sequence [the genome] You kind of get this long list of taxa with Latin names, but that’s not really the most important information,” says Cordero. “The vision is that one day – hopefully not too far in the future – we’ll be able to convert this information into more functional variables. [This goes back to] the pressure-volume-temperature analogy. Perhaps these ecosystems can be understood with simple models, and perhaps we can predict what they will do in the future. That would be a huge game changer.”