Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A happy holobiont is a holobiont that takes care of its microbiome

An obviously unhappy holobiont engaged in exterminating its own microbiome. Bad idea.

The epidemic of biophobia is still raging worldwide, with people still washing their hands with poisonous substances, convinced to do something good, or forced by law to do so.

Not a good idea. You skin microbiome is precious to you, among other things it is the first true barrier against infections. Some people are recognizing the problem, as it is described in a recent article on "The Guardian"

Just an excerpt:
Hand-washing aside, James Hamblin has not used soap for five years. He warns that our obsession with being clean is harming the microbiome that keeps us healthy
Take care of your microbiome, and be a happy holobiont!

(h/t Miguel Martinez)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Sex and Death among Holobionts and Organisms

My mother in law, Liliana, turns 100 today. Happy Birthday, Liliana!

Both holobionts and organisms have to fight entropic decay. Holobionts do that by continuously changing their hologenome in a horizontal exchange of information. Organisms do the same by the vertical mixing of their genome in the process called sexual reproduction. Both methods are driven by natural selection.
The second strategy, sexual reproduction, brings the need of eliminating the old genomes by the process of aging. True holobionts never die (think of a forest), but organisms do. Too bad for organisms, but it is a choice (and a lot of fun, too!). 
Liliana turned out to be a successful and resilient organism. So far, she has three daughters, a son, three grandsons, one grand-daughter and, recently, two great-grand daughters. Not bad!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The March of the Holobots

I am just back from a scientific meeting held in a small city in the mountains, you know, like things were.... when? Was it the Pleistocene, when people met in person to discuss things? Or was it before the PETM, during the Paleocene? Anyway, you learn things while having discussions at dinner with the other attendees. And I had a very interesting dinner with a group of roboticists. Many, many ideas. One I came up with is that of the "Holobot" -- the solid state equivalent of the holobiont! 

Bots are not based on cells, and they have no genetic code, either. So they are born holobionts.We are witnessing the birth of a new ecosystem that we might describe with the words of a recent article on Quanta Magazine (h/t Chuck Pezeshky): 

"Within this theory, individuals can be cells, tissues, organisms, colonies, companies, political institutions, online groups, artificial intelligence or cities — even ideas or theories, according to Krakauer. “What we’re trying to do is discover a whole zoo of life forms that extend far beyond what we have conventionally called living,”
So, the bots we are building can be seen as individuals and they do fulfill this extended definition of "life" -- a dynamic phenomenon that extends in time, not being just limited in space. It is just that they are not the same kind of life as ours. And so, onward, fellow holobots!

This subject is also being discussed on the Facebook group "The Proud Holobionts"

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Why human society is not a good holobiont.

Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil and gas (ASPO) explaining the essence of oil depletion.
The problem is that human society is not a good holobiont. It either overreacts or does not react to external perturbations. The result is a destabilization that may lead to a catastrophe. Read the whole story on "Cassandra's Legacy"


A Fellow Feathered Holobiont

A fellow holobiont. This owl was photographed by Anastassia Makarieva in the region of the White Sea, in Northern Russia. It appeared to be friendly.

Owls have been fascinating as symbols of wisdom to humans since the time when they were sacred to the Goddess Athena. Anastassia sent to me this specific picture after a discussion we had on the meaning of the owl mentioned in an old short story by Vladimir Dudintsev, "A New Year's Tale" (1960) that resonates of meanings still valid today. I discuss this story in a post of mine on "Cassandra's Legacy"

Amont other things, it is curious how the symbology of owls was revisited by Hayao Miyazaki in recent times in his movie "Princess Mononoke"(1997) in the form of the little white creatures called "kodama," Japanese tree spirits. In the movie, kodamas share with owls the capability of turning their heads around, apparently without any bounds. You can see one of Miyazaki's kodamas as the front cover of this blog

Monday, July 13, 2020

Eco-Anxiety and Biophobia: When Nature is Seen as Evil

By Zhiwa Woodbury, M.A., J.D., Linda Buzzell, M.A., LMFT, and Craig Chalquist, Ph.D

Above, a link to a recent post by Zhiwa Woodbury, titled "Nature as a Threat." It is interesting for several reason, one is how he sets the virus threat as "Eco-Anxiety," part of our general perception of Nature as an enemy, a threat, the concept that Edward Wilson called "Biophobia." 
Never in history we saw this unbelievable frenzy of self-harming by disinfecting, washing, staying apart from other creatures, hiding one's face, taking harmful concoctions, thrusting phone apps controlling one's life and, wanting more of all that. In general, it means retreating inside a personal micro-fortress and seeing ourselves as besieged by armies of monstrous creatures stemming out of the evil goo that Nature is.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Holobiont as a New Vision of the World

Long-term predictive models don't have a very good record, but some turned out to be prophetic. One case is that of Hubbert's 1956 prediction of a peak in the production of fossil energy shortly after the start of the 21st century. He was optimistic about the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy, but, apart from that, he was right on target. Now we are on the edge of the cliff and we have to take a different attitude toward the ecosystem that supports our existence. The concept of "Holobiont" may help us a lot in this task. We are holobionts, the ecosystem is a larger holobiont, we must find a way to live together. 

The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it were to start. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, Hubbert presented the figure above: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale.

Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament several years in advance with respect to "The Limits to Growth" (1972). Catton's "overshoot" (1980), and many others. Without a miracle that could replace fossils well before they would start declining, the human world as it was in the 20th center was doomed. Nuclear energy was not, and could not have been, that miracle.

Hubbert's may not have been always cited, but the debate on the decline of the natural resources raged for decades -- with most of it based on various interpretation of the concept of technological progress. In the most optimistic views, depletion was not considered a pressing problem but, in any case, it was believed that technology would chase the problem away, automatically, and without pain for anyone, purely on the basis of market forces. In this view, it made no sense to slow down in order to save resources: on the contrary, accelerating the exploitation would lead to economic growth and to the consequent availability of more and more advanced technologies. The opposite attitude was that the problem was important and imminent, but that predictive models could lead to planning efforts based on slowing down the exploitation of the remaining resources and a technology switch toward higher efficiency/new sources.  Over time, the debate veered more and more toward the concept that climate change was a much more important problem than resource depletion. But the attitudes didn't change.

All the debate led to nothing. Nothing was decided, nothing was done. Society turned out to be impervious to early alerts and technology unable to be the miracle that was touted to be. In 2020, we have arrived to a critical point: the start of the irreversible decline of the technological society that had been developed over about two centuries of use of fossil fuels as energy source. We are seeing the "Seneca Cliff," the unavoidable destiny of a system that has expanded beyond its limits, that has gone in heavy "overshoot" to use Catton's definition?

And now? Clearly, it is too late to deploy miracle technologies: we are starting to go down and the question how to face the decline: can we still avoid to turn it into a crash? The data show that it would still be possible to soften the decline and to go down on a relatively smooth slope. But the resistance to the unavoidable is actually worsening the situation. Politicians and most of the public are still convinced that the way to go is to "restart growth" without realizing that they are hastening collapse and making it faster and harsher.

How did we arrive here? It was not a failure of science and technology. It was a cultural failure. We tried to manage the future without the right tools. In retrospect, it was obvious that tools developed in an age of abundance wouldn't be useful, actually counterproductive, in an age of scarcity. Imagine a banker stranded on a remote island trying to get food by building a automated cash teller. You get the point.

At this point, we could say that we need a new vision of the ecosystem. That's correct, although reductive. It is not a question of what we "need." It is a question of an unavoidable cultural transformation that's going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with the ecosystem. In different terms, we could say that the ecosystem is going to decide what it is going to do with us -- not consciously (probably) but just practically. Either it is going to get rid of an obnoxious species -- the humans  -- that has done only damage to everything, or that species is going to take a different attitude that will make it less obnoxious.

That's the challenge we face, not an easy one, but not impossible either. The cultural tools we need have been partly developed and are being developed. A basic one is the concept of "Holobiont" the idea that the fundamental components of the ecosystem are not organisms, but holobionts intended as colonies of creatures that hang together for mutual benefit. Human beings are holobionts, trees, forests, steppes, and tundras are holobionts. The whole ecosystem is a holobionts. And we can be proud of being good holobionts and learn to live together with the greater holobiont we call "Gaia." Will we be able to do that?

We can discuss these matters on the new blog "The Proud Holobionts" and in the Facebook group with the same name. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Minding Nature

Dear fellow holobionts,
You may be interested in this site, and in the journal titled "Minding Nature." They do deal with the concept of "holobiont" and are interested in a holistic view of the relation of humankind and nature. The latest issue is mainly dedicated to Alexander Von Humboldt, he didn't know about holobionts, but he would surely have appreciated the concept! Onward!

Share ideas on conservation values and the practice of ecological citizenship.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Gaia as Holobiont

I started this morning reading the proceedings of a 2017 conference titled "Metaphors for a new body Politics" -- It is a lot of material, and it takes some time to go through it. Something from the chapter by Scott Gilbert, "Gaia as Holobiont" struck me as interesting and I am proposing it to you.

"You can see history in terms of the holobiont. The conquest of the Western hemisphere during the great Columbian Exchange was done not by the armed forces of Pizarro or Cort├ęz.It was done by diphtheria, cholera, smallpox, rubella, and Salmonella (37-39). The context determines the relationship. The European travelers brought with them all these microbes, which they had learnt to live with. The American Indians had no experience of these microbes, and it is estimated that 85 to 90% of the indigenous American community was wiped out by European microbes. What was mutualistic symbiosis to Europeans became parasitic symbiosis to the native Americans."

That made me think of the Covid-19 policy adopted (and much praised) by New Zealand. Keeping the virus away from their island. A fine idea in many respects, but they will never develop immunity against it. If something goes wrong and the virus starts diffusing there, it could be a disaster. Of course, they hope in a vaccine. Of course.....

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Gaia: the planet Holobiont

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This article by Matissek and Luttge goes in some depth into the definition of "Gaia" as a planetary holobiont. It is rich in ideas and concept, although I think it is not really as deep as it could be. On the other hand, we still have lots of things to learn!!

The strict definition of holobiont is that it is a host organism (plant or animal) in interaction with all associated microorganisms as an entity for selection in evolution. This definition can be generalized when not only microorganisms internal of or endogenous to a host organism are concerned but any regular organisms which strongly interact between each other also externally. Such latter associations may altogether function as co-evolutionary entities at the community level, as can be concluded from their evolutionary history. A thorough inspection of habitats and ecosystems shows that such kinds of mutualistic associations prevail. Therefore, we can scale up examples of endogenous symbioses to ecosystems, biomes and the entire biosphere as holobionts, where the planet holobiont is Gaia.
James Lovelock defines Gaia as the biosphere being a self-regulating entity that ensures the planet’s capacity for harboring life by controlling the chemical and physical environment in conducive ways. Thus, the question is of whether Gaia manages a global equilibrium which sustains life on Earth. Possibly this holds for life as such but not for any specific forms of life as illustrated by several extinction waves of organisms during geological history. Such events were typically followed by the emergence of innovative new forms as arising from adaptive radiation into abandoned ecological niches. Will man be subject of the next extinction wave? Such a possibility raises ethical imperatives for man to sustain the biosphere sensu Gaia on which he not only depends, but also is part of. Holobiont research must aim at gaining advanced understanding, both in mechanistic and holistic terms, by extending the holobiont concept across the spatio-temporal scales of ecological organization. This implies to delineate the humble position of man in the biosphere and to explore conditions for man’s sustained survival on Earth.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)