Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Microbes..who, us?

Stewing in heat-waves, rain, and who knows what else. Summertime in the northern hemisphere of the planet is a good time to wallow in a bit of speculative thinking. A couple of posts ago I talked about a fabulous piece of work on what could be a 2.1 billion year old example of emerging multicellular life here on Earth. Hot on the heels of this is another study of the origins and mechanisms of multi-cellular organisms. The paper, by Prochnik and collaborators, examines genetic evidence for the history of multi-cellular behavior in a type of algae.

The bottom line is that the algae seems to have very, very similar genetic building blocks to its most similar single-celled, microbial relatives. Specifically, the protein toolset doesn't alter much between the single guys and the multi-cellular descendants. What this means is that it wasn't some giant leap to move to a multi-cellular, or communal, existence - at least for these species. To use the terminology of the study, these organisms are not particularly innovative - with a bit of an evolutionary shrug of 'oh what the heck' they segued into a new multi-cellular mode of life. Of course I exaggerate, but it does seem that this was not some earth-shattering, Charlton Heston type, moment in ancient biology. The same tools can be used to fashion a new type of life.

Which brings me to the summer speculation. Here we all sit gazing at our screens, our little brains and hands pawing at the pixels and keys. Each of us is quite uni-cellular in that sense, self-contained, sending out feelers and sensors, pulling in environmental information. The medium that we are immersed in may be a virtual one, packets of electrons whizzing to and fro across the world, but it's arguably just as good as a nice bit of pond water, or agar gel.

Then something happens. Perhaps it's an earthquake, a political event, a particularly enthralling YouTube video of cats licking themselves. Whatever it is, it can serve to motivate a sudden shift of mode for thousands, if not millions of individuals. Instead of solitary action we can form a mob, whether by just pinging the same page, sharing on Facebook, emailing everyone we know, or actually hopping on a bus and going to a demonstration. The internet has made this type of behavior far, far, easier. Each of the cells may not think they're part of a larger organism, but by most standards they are. Social gaming is another excellent example - 'help me grow my carrots by clicking here' - if that isn't inter-cellular communication to perform function then I don't know what it is.

So, here's the proposal, for all you bored but brilliant programmers. How about making a social game that is actually a cunningly disguised attempt to build a virtual multi-cellular lifeform? All of us single-celled organisms will just use our familiar toolsets to participate, but in doing so we will create and evolve something new, much bigger than the sum of the parts. The point of this - other than lowering office productivity - would be to perform a scientifically useful experiment to learn about the types of networks and 'global' mechanisms involved in shifting from uni-cellular life to multi-cellular. We might, just might, gain insight to this transition...

[oh, and I'm sure someone else has thought about this before...]

4 comments:

Keith Arnaud said...

I thought that was what Google was doing.

lbillings said...

Kinda reminds me of what Bruce Damer wants to do with EVOGRID, albeit EVOGRID is looking at abiogenesis rather than the multicellular transition.

http://www.evogrid.org/index.php/Main_Page

Dan D. said...

Fascinating stuff!

I can't help but point out that this idea is even in the Bible, when the Apostle Paul describes the Body of Christ (made up of humans) in analogy to the various parts of the human body, each performing their own function (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). If he had been aware of individual cells, I'm sure he would used them as examples as well. The idea that individual humans are part of a larger scale organism wherein each individual performs a function and may not be even aware of the emergent behavior of the larger-scale organism, goes back quite a long way indeed.

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