Sunday, November 22, 2020

A New Holobiont in Gaia's Family


Had you ever heard of the "Plastisphere"? Well, it is a new ecosystem that thrives on the plastic islands in the sea created by human activity. 
The term was coined in 2013, but these little critters are still thriving nowadays as you can see in a more recent article
For sure, they'll soon have plenty of food in the form of the six billion (yes, 6x10^9!) plastic face masks discarded everyday by humankind and, eventually, ending up floating somewhere in the ocean. 
And here is how the plastic plate appears to our little friends, the microbes. Bon Appetit!

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Wolf Song. A Few Minutes of Bliss in a Difficult Time

A splendid song, splendidly sung by Jonna Jinton, Swedish singer. The images are haunting and beautiful, suggesting the beauty of the forest inhabited by wolves, humans, and other creatures that form a single system, holobionts within the greater holobiont that covers the land. A few minutes of bliss, welcome in the difficult times we are living. 

These are the words in Swedish ("vargen" means wolves) -- Here you can find a more traditional version. Note how gentle and compassionate is the song, with the mother understanding the hunger and the distress of the wolf and willing to give it a pig tail or a chicken shank.

Vargen ylar i natten skog
Han vill men kan inte sova
Hungern river i hans varga buk
O det är kallt i hans stova
Du varg du varg, kom inte hit
Ungen min får du aldrig
Vargen ylar i natten skog
Ylar av hunger o klagar
Men jag ska gen en grisa svans
Sånt passar i varga magar
Du varg du varg, kom inte hit
Ungen min får du aldrig
Sov mitt barn i bädden hos mor
Låt vargen yla i natten
Men jag ska gen en hönsa skank
Om ingen annan har tatt den
Du varg du varg kom inte hit
Ungen får du aldrig
Ungen den får du aldrig

And here is a version in English (translated using Google, revised using common sense, as I don't speak Swedish. May not be perfect).

The wolf howls in the night forest 
He wants to but cannot sleep 
Hunger tears in his wolf belly 
Oh, it's cold in his den
You wolf you wolf, do not come here 
You'll never get my kid 
The wolf howls in the night forest 
Howls of hunger and complains 
But I'm gonna give it a pig tail 
That kind of thing fits in wolf stomachs 
You wolf you wolf, do not come here 
You'll never get my kid 
My child slept in her mother's bed 
Let the wolf howl at night 
But I'm gonna give it a chicken shank 
If no one else has taken it 
You wolf you wolf do not come here 
You never get the kid 
My kid, you'll never get it

Friday, November 13, 2020

Sex Among Holobionts: Love is a Horizontal Thing


  Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is reported to have said, "Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love."  His paintings have a certain "holobiontic" quality. This one, "Les Amoureux de Vence" was painted in 1957,


What do holobionts, empathy, and harmony have in common with sex? One thing: they are all forms of horizontal transmission of information. We tend to see ourselves as multicellular organisms and, for us, sex is indeed a "horizontal" thing, in a certain sense. 

But, sex was not invented by multicellular thing. On this planet, sex is mostly something that bacteria engage in, freely exchanging genetic materials among themselves. It is free love that goes on all the time among single-celled creatures. And it is the way they evolve. It is by exchanging genetic materials that bacteria have become more and more capable to resist to the human attacks against them by means of antibiotics.

And even viruses, which can't reproduce by themselves, have sex with each other. It is just that they can only do that when two different viruses find themselves in the same host cell. That can become even a little weird when the two viruses come from different previous hosts, say a pangolin and a human being. In any case, viruses evolve very fast, that's why almost every year a new wave of influenza spreads over the world. 

For larger holobionts, such as human beings, the situation is different when you consider the reproductive mechanism of the main organism, the human one. Two human organisms exchange genetic information, but then this information must be "read" in a complex process that involves the birth of a new human being (and, unfortunately, the death of the old one). It is slow: in terms of evolutionary prowess, viruses and bacteria run circles around us. Fortunately, our immune system can also change fast enough to match the new threats and we are also defended by the "good" biome that form the human holobiont, the bacterial and viral symbionts we carry with us. And we are part of the larger holobiont we call the ecosystem.

Holobionts are a fractal system: the true embodiment of the poem of Jonathan Swift

The Vermin only teaze and pinch
Their Foes superior by an Inch.
So, Nat'ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum:

And so it goes.


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)