Life is the Network, Not the Self

I reach up into a sugar maple tree’s low branches and pluck a leaf. My fingers hold a seemingly unremarkable leaf, grown on a tree next to a suburban driveway. This leaf is not what it seems.

I dip the leaf in alcohol, then in dilute bleach, long enough to kill fungi and bacteria on the surface. Then, with a sterile knife, I sliver the leaf and lay the cut segments onto Petri dishes filled with sugar-infused agar. I’m using this simplest of microbiological techniques to query what might be living inside the leaf. Maple cells will not grow in the Petri dishes, but fungi will. I’m luring them out of hiding and, by feeding them, bringing them to a scale that my human senses can apprehend.

Days later, fungal growth spills out of the sliced leaf: toffee-colored lava flows, bright orange flecks, rippled cream, tangled puffs of white filaments, sulfurous shags, and purple velvet. The dishes were the nonpareils of moldy fridges, vibrant ecstasies of fungal growth. The “control” dishes, those I had opened and knifed but not touched with maple, were bare or sparsely spotted with gray blobs. Here, then, were some of the leaf’s inhabitants coaxed into view.

  

The colorful growths revealed that my high school and college textbooks had told a half-truth. Elegant diagrams of leaf cross-sections depicted only plant cells. But a leaf is a community of fungus, bacteria, protist, alga, nematode, and plant. Just as diagrams of human skin or gut usually omit the microbes that are essential components of human bodies, our images of plants, seemingly so objective, missed the essential nature of a leaf. A “maple” is not an individual made of plant cells, but a community of cells from many domains and kingdoms of life. Microbe-free plants likely do not exist in nature and, if they could be constructed, would quickly die for want of the vital connections that sustain life.

Most of the cells that comprise a maple leaf are smaller than plant cells and hard to see under low-powered microscopes. The incomplete diagrams of early botanists are therefore understandable. But we now know that leaves also comprise millions of non-plant cells. My backyard experiment revealed just the small a portion of the fungal community. Studies of the diversity of DNA in leaves reveal hundreds of species in every leaf. Worldwide, there may be a million species of leaf-dwelling fungus. Global diversity of bacteria in leaves is unknown, but DNA sequencing can reveal hundreds per plant species.

By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. In some species, the network changes through the seasons, starting in spring with bacteria that resemble those of the soil, then shifting through the growing season to bacteria that can process the complex mix of nutrients inside a leaf. Fungi inside the leaf protect against herbivorous animals, encourage growth, and confer drought resistance to the plant. Bacteria also promote growth by processing nutrients, cleaning wastes, signaling to plant cells, producing growth hormones, and combatting pathogens.

The leaf network is also a place of tension, its members caught in the evolutionary struggle between cooperation and conflict. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi continually threaten to overwhelm and destroy the leaf, a tendency held in check by a combination of plant defensive chemicals and competition from other microbes. The leaf community contains the seeds (or fungal hyphae) of its own mortality: When leaves weaken, fungi engulf the leaf and start the process of decomposition. This rot isn’t always a disadvantage for the rest of the plant. Death can prune shaded leaves, stopping them from draining the plant community’s energy.

Fifty years ago, Lynn Margulis showed that plant cells are miniature networks, made of the union of three different evolutionary lineages: light-gathering chloroplasts, sugar-eating mitochondria, and enveloping plant cells. We now know that the same is true of the leaf and indeed the whole plant. Biologists talk not of the ecology and evolution individual plants, but of “holobionts,” entities made of many species, all inseparably linked.

Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.

This view of life has practical consequences. If plants are made from relationships, then agricultural science can manage these relationships to increase yield and sustainability. In conservation biology, restoring ecological interactions will help species and ecosystems. In genetic engineering, the effects of manipulations emerge not from the essential quality of any stretch of DNA but from networked interactions among genes and their environments. The living communities within plants can be put to work remediating polluted soils, reducing the toxicity of agricultural chemicals applied to crops, and processing biofuels.

The colorful fungal growths swarming my Petri dishes have a lesson beyond the immediate practical benefits of managing and studying living networks. Every textbook diagram and every written metaphor shape how we imagine the world. Microbiology and genetics are calling us to expand that imaginative space. When we gaze at a maple leaf, we now see not an individual made of plant cells, but a thrumming conversation, an embodied network. The “self” is a society.


David George Haskell’s latest book, The Songs of Trees, explores biological networks through the sounds and stories of a dozen trees around the world. He is a professor of biology at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. His first book, The Forest Unseen, was the winner of the National Academies’ Best Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, among other honors. You can connect with him on twitter: @DGHaskell

Justice

Martin Luther King often said justice is the result of love.

From Wikipedia:

Justice is the legal or philosophical theory by which fairness is administered. The concept of justice differs in every culture. An early theory of justice was set out by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic. Advocates of divine command theory argue that justice issues from God. In the 17th century, theorists like John Locke argued for the theory of natural law. Thinkers in the social contract tradition argued that justice is derived from the mutual agreement of everyone concerned. In the 19th century, utilitarian thinkers including John Stuart Mill argued that justice is what has the best consequences. Theories of distributive justice concern what is distributed, between whom they are to be distributed, and what is the proper distribution. Egalitarians argued that justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality. John Rawls used a social contract argument to show that justice, and especially distributive justice, is a form of fairness. Property rights theorists (like Robert Nozick) take a deontological view of distributive justice and argue that property rights-based justice maximizes the overall wealth of an economic system.

A farm lovingly managed exhibits just relationships.

Sexual/Gender Identity and Agriculture

Through some research and reading I’ve been doing on moral, ethical, and religious thought related to agriculture I have come across a number of discussions on sexual/gender identity…and a language system that is evolving to discuss sex in politics.

From a sexual human rights website:

Sexual orientation

An inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.

Gender identity

One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.

Gender expression

External appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.

Transgender

An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.

Gender dysphoria

Clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the term – which replaces Gender Identity Disorder – “is intended to better characterize the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults.”

Citations of the term dysphoria in Google books database.

Dysphoria is a state of unease or general dissatisfaction with life.

I also find that there is an increasing amount of academic writing redefining the meaning of gender. Traditionally, gender has been described as the state of being male or female…in essence a direct link to human sexual biology. Currently, you can find discussions of the definition of gender that are extensive and take the position that gender is a social construct.

I grew up spending a great deal of time in horse country Kentucky. Long before dysphoria came into use folks have been ‘genetically modifying’ horses (and many other animals) to suit their human needs/desires/social constructs.

Agriculture has also genetically modified seeds to an enormous extent to suit their human needs/desires/social constructs.

How do we, as a society and a community, evolve ethically, morally, and religiously given our current willingness to profoundly alter the biological characteristics of plants, animals, and ourselves?

How can we know with any certainty what we are creating?

How do we evaluate the risks we are taking?

Do we know with certainty that we are not creating catastrophic biological conditions for Earth?

Mystery, Original Sin, Agriculture

I’ve been reading a new work by an old friend, Wendell Berry, titled A Small Porch.

Also…have been reading from the writings of Russell Moore, ethicist for the Southern Baptist congregations.

Both writers are concerned about our societal loss of soul.

Industrial animal agriculture and the treatment of soil by industrial grain farming are unfortunate and enormous examples of a loss of soul.

Mr. Berry points out the inherent mystery in our universe…how, whatever new knowledge we gain, there ALWAYS remains great mystery. From that realization he infers the need to act humbly.

Mr. Moore points out that, as humans, we are profoundly flawed…thus the religious concept of original sin. He also infers from that original sin a need to act humbly.

I too am concerned about our souls.

Both writers believe careful scale, humility, and reasonable compassion are central to good work.

EPA Nanotechnology Press Release

I received this EPA Press Release today…and noted the Duke University effort to “develop 32 tightly controlled and monitored ecosystems in Duke Forest in Durham, N.C. Known as “mesocosms,” these living laboratories provide areas where researchers can add nanoparticles and study the resulting interactions and effects on plants, fish, bacteria and other elements.”….a little ‘ecoengineering’ I assume.

Nanotechnology opens new worlds of possibilities for important computer, medical and environmental applications. To ensure nanotechnology is developed in a responsible manner, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and EPA awarded $38 million to establish two Centers for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINs). EPA contributed $5 million to the overall award, which is the largest award for nanotechnology research in the Agency’s history. The new centers will conduct research on the possible environmental, health and safety impacts of nanomaterials, using very different approaches than previous studies.

“Nanotechnology is an exciting field, with the promise of dramatic benefits for the environment,” said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. “Working together, EPA and NSF can improve our scientific understanding of nanoscale materials, develop the appropriate risk assessment framework, and make appropriate risk management decisions.”

The CEINs are an important addition to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and will build on NSF’s Center for Biological and Environmental Technologies and EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants on nanotechnology. Led by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Duke University, the CEIN will study how nanomaterials interact with the environment and human health, resulting in better risk assessment and mitigation strategies to be used in the commercial development of nanotechnology. Each center will work as a network, connected to multiple research organizations, industry and government agencies, and will emphasize interdisciplinary research and education.

The UCLA CEIN, to be housed at the California NanoSystems Institute on the UCLA campus, will develop a predictive scientific model to study the environmental and health effects of different types of nanomaterials and human health faster than can be done by traditional animal toxicity testing. The model to be developed will consider: which nanomaterials are most likely to come into contact with the environment, which animals/plants can act as early sentinels of environmental changes, and high throughput methods to screen many chemicals quickly.

At Duke University‘s CEIN, researchers plan to study the potential environmental and biological effects on a wide range of nanomaterials – from natural to man-made, using a novel outdoor laboratory approach. In the coming year, the research team will develop 32 tightly controlled and monitored ecosystems in Duke Forest in Durham, N.C. Known as “mesocosms,” these living laboratories provide areas where researchers can add nanoparticles and study the resulting interactions and effects on plants, fish, bacteria and other elements.

More information on the awards: http://www.epa.gov/ncer/08CEIN

Endangered Species Act

From an AP article:

Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct. The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.

New regulations, which don’t require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have been performing for 35 years, according to a draft first obtained by The Associated Press.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said late Monday the changes were needed to ensure that the Endangered Species Act would not be used as a “back door” to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. In May, the polar bear became the first species declared as threatened because of climate change. Warming temperatures are expected to melt the sea ice the bear depends on for survival.

The draft rules would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.

“We need to focus our efforts where they will do the most good,” Kempthorne said in a news conference organized quickly after AP reported details of the proposal. “It is important to use our time and resources to protect the most vulnerable species. It is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species.”

It is one thing if the Interior Department wants to focus energies of FWS on protecting the most vulnerable species….but to say “it is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species” is uninformed and harmful language.

For the entire Article:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080811/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/bush_endangered_species