(…) It’s a bizarre coincidence that just as scientists were discovering the evolutionary importance of viruses, computer engineers were creating a good metaphor for their effect. In the late 1990s, group of American engineers became frustrated by the slow pace of software development. Corporations would develop new programs to make it impossible for anyone on the outside to look at the code. Improvements could come only from within – and they came slowly, if at all. In 1998, these breakaway engineers issued a manifesto for a different way of developing programs, which they called open-source software. They began to write programs with fully acessible code. Other programmers could tinker with the program, or merge parts of different programs to create new ones. The open-source software movement predicted that this uncontrolled code swapping would make better programs faster. Studies have also shown that software can be debugged faster if it is opwn source than if it is private. Open-source software has now gone from manifesto to reality. Even big corporations such as Microsoft are beginning to open some of their programs to the world’s inspection.
In 2005, Anne O. Summers, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia, and her colleagues coined a new term for evolution driven by horizontal gene transfer: open-source evolution. Vertical gene transfer and natural selection act like an in-house team of software developers, hiding the details of their innovations from the community. Horizontal gene transfer allows E. Coli. to grab chunks opf software and test them in its own operating system. In some cases, the combination is a disaster. Its software crashes, and it dies. But in other cases, the fin-tuning of natural selection allows the combination to work well. The improved patch may later end up in the genome of other organism, where it can be improved even more. If E. Coli is any guide, the open-source movement has a bright future.
Carl Zimmer, in Microcosm – E. Coli and the New Science of Life