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How One Plus One Became Everything: A Puzzle of Life

Monday, August 19, 2013 - 10:00 AM

It's one of life's great mysteries ...

Four billion years ago, or thereabouts, organic chemicals in the sea somehow spun themselves into little homes, with insides and outsides. We call them cells.

They did this in different ways, but always keeping their insides in, protected from the outside world ...

... surrounded by walls or skins of different types ...

... but letting in essentials, nutrients. Some even learned to eat sunshine, capturing energy ...

... which gave them a pulse of their own ...

... so they could move ...

.... and glow ...

Over time, they became more complicated ...

But though all this began 4 billion years ago, for some reason, and nobody knows why, all these cells, billions, trillions of them, didn't do the next obvious thing. They didn't link up.

It seems so simple. There's one of you. Why not join with another? Multicellular life has so many advantages; it not only makes you bigger and stronger, it allows you to do several things at once, complicated things like seeing or swimming or ... eventually, thinking and loving.

"More complexity was possible," writes Richard Fortey in his classic book Life, but for a puzzlingly long time — more than 70 percent of life's history on earth, all living things did was stay alone and divide. Why did it take so long for 1 plus 1 to begin? Why did it start? What changed?

The truth is, we don't know.

The mystery persists.

I asked digital artist Paolo Čerić to let me appropriate his elegant gifs for this essay. Paolo is currently a student in Zagreb, studying information processing at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Croatia and if you go to his blog, Patakkyou can see a full bouquet of his latest creations. Some of them — the ones I use here to talk about biology — are his invented forms elegantly looped; he's also got some that spring out of nowhere, others that play with already existing images, making them shudder, scramble, break apart. He says he's relatively new to digital art and animation, mostly self-taught it seems, and feeling his way, but with every month, he just gets better and better and better.


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Comments [1]

John from Indiana

I've often wondered about this question. I don't have any answers, but just wanted to add that there are some single celled life forms that do sometimes work together. In one type I read about, when nutrients are plentiful, they stay single. When nutrients are scarce, if a cell manages to gather enough nutrients to divide, the new cell doesn't separate- it buds off of the parent cell but doesn't fully disconnect. Then the pair of cells share nutrients, and when there's enough for another division, one cell splits, but again it buds off of one end of the pair and doesn't separate. So you gradually get a growing line of cells, sharing nutrients, until eventually one end of the line reaches am area of more plentiful nutrients, and the famine is over. In another type, again it lives singly when nutrients are plentiful, but when they're scarce, as the cell divides the resulting cells stay together. Reproduction continues until it grows into a mass of cells, and then some of them form a stalk, and spores are released from the top of the stalk, to blow with the wind, hopefully to more fertile areas.

Sep. 18 2013 04:01 AM

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