Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Science of Symbiogenesis

By Steve Rensberry   

The science of symbiogenesis, along with that of endosymbiosis and symbiosis in general, raises some interesting questions about both our identity as human beings and about evolutionary biology in general. Symbiogenesis is a theory which involves the symbiotic or beneficial merging of two organisms in a way that produces a uniquely new composite organism of greater complexity. Endosymbiosis involves one organism literally taking up physical residence inside of another, establishing an environment that is beneficial to both in some way. Symbiosis is the more general term referring simply to a close, mutually beneficial interaction between organisms over the long term.
   Names you'll come across: Richard Altmann, A.S. Famintzyn, Konstantin Sergejewitsch Mereschkowski, Boris Mihailovich Kozo-Polvansky, Ivan Wallin and Dr. Lynn Margulis.
    I confess that I've found it puzzling to see a vast number of references to K.S. Mereschkowski as having "proposed," "brought up," or "first formulated" the theory of symbiogenesis in his 1926 book Symbiogenesis and the Origin of Species, when Mereschkowski died in 1921.
   The answer I'm sure is somewhere, perhaps in one of the books cited in the very article you are reading, but not having read all of them myself my presumption is that it was published five years after his death. Mereschkowski, incidentally, committed suicide, his personal life a shambles in the wake of a sex scandal that had forced him to leave Russia in 1914. 
   Although it was Mereschkowski who first formulated the theory, it was Russian botanist Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky who first theorized that symbiogenesis was the fundamental or primary mechanism behind evolutionary novelty, while natural selection worked to keep such changes intact, at least that's my understanding of it.
   The theory garnered significant interest after its rediscovery by Dr. Lynn Margulis in the 1960s. This past July, Harvard University Press gave the study of symbiogenesis another boost by publishing Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution, co-edited by Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis. The publication is a re-release of Kozo-Polyansky 's1924 work of the same name, with additional background material.
   A note on the Harvard University Press Blog says:
   "Last month, we published Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution by Soviet-era Russian botanist Boris Kozo-Polyansky. Part scientific treatise, part historical detective work, the book resurrects a lost classic of evolutionary theory along with its fascinating backstory. The volume’s co-editors, Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis, argue that Kozo-Polyansky’s theories—now recognized as true by almost all biologists after decades of neglect—were far ahead of their time. Here, editor and translator Fet tells the story of Kozo-Polyansky’s discovery."
   Here's a brief list of some of the names and early works important in the development of the theory.
  • Johann Franz Drège
  • Schimper AFW . "Über die Entwicklung der Chlorophyllkörner und Farbkörper". Bot Zeitung (1883)
  • Schimper AFW - Plant-geography upon a physiological basis. (1903)
  • Richard Altmann - Treatise: Die Elementarorganismen (The Elementary Organism) (1890.
  • Famintzyn, A.S. - work of 1891
  • Schimper AFW, et al - A Textbook of Botany. (1898)
  • Merschkowsky, Konstantin Sergejewitsch - The nature and origins of chromatophores in the plant kingdom.  (1905)
  • Merschkowsky - The Theory of Two Plasms as the Basis of Symbiogenesis, a New Study or the Origins of Organisms. (1909)
  • Paul Portier - Les Symbiotes. (1918) 
  • Kozo-Polyansky, Boris Mikhailovich - Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution. 1924
  • Konstantin Mereschkowsky. - Symbiogenesis and the Origin of Species. (1926)
  • Wallin, Ivan E. - The Mitochondria Problem (1923)
  • Wallin, Ivan -  Symbionticism and the Origins of Species (1927).
  • Margulis, Lynn, 1967 paper, The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells.
  • Margulis, Lynn, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, Yale University Press (1970)
  • Margulis, Lynn, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution. (1981)
  • Margulis, Lynn, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, (1981, 1992) W.H. Freeman. (Another reference says it was published in 1981).
  • Margulis, Lynn, ed, Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation: Speciation and Morphogenesis, The MIT Press (1991).
  • Sapp, Jan, Evolution by Association: A History of Symbiosis, Oxford University Press (1994).
  • Lynn Margulis. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Amherst, MA: Perseus Books Group. (1998)
  • Margulis, Lynn and Sagan, Dorion. Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. Amherst, MA: Perseus Books Group (2002).
Note: This article was last updated on 11/29/10 (paragraph five).

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    Our Robot Future

       With so many scientific fields undergoing rapid advances and in many cases converging, among them the fields of biology, neuroscience, computing and artificial intelligence, is it too much to speculate that some day we may be able to effectively link human cognitive function -- and memories -- directly with a reliable android support system? The 1999 film, The Thirteenth Floor, by Director Josef Rusnak and starring Gretchen Mol and Craig Bierko, theorized its near perfection, as did the movies The Matrix, Surrogates and Avatar.
       What would it mean for the human mind if its existence as a relatively fragile, biological-based physical organism with a finite lifespan were able to be strengthened and maintained indefinitely? It's not a new question, but I'd say the longer time goes on the closer we're moving in that direction. Have researchers ever been able to store even one element of a biological organism's memory in an artificial environment? What would it mean for our future if they were able to? Watch this video from PBS and tell me it doesn't give you an idea or two about where this is all headed. The direct link is here: PBS exerpt on robots.