What is the meaning of 'one'? Evolutionary biologists argue for new meaning of 'organismality'

Nov 09, 2009

Rice University evolutionary biologists David Queller and Joan Strassmann argue in a new paper that high cooperation and low conflict between components, from the genetic level on up, give a living thing its "organismality," whether that thing is an animal, a plant, a bacteria - or a colony.

Some of the traits scientists use to describe an organism, such as individuality or even membership in the same species, may not be necessary to achieve organismality. What is necessary, they argue, is a commonality of interests and minimal conflict that when combined, makes this the premier level of adaptation.

Queller and Strassmann, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professors of Ecology and , address what they call "the truly central questions about the organization of life" in "Beyond Society: The Evolution of Organismality," published this month in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society Biological Sciences.

"This is more than a semantic game of deciding that X is an organism and Y is not," they wrote. "The scientific community could choose any name they want for entities with extensive and very little conflict, but the existence of such entities is one of the striking features of life, and explaining how they evolve should therefore be an important task."

The ideas they present have been bubbling just below the surface of their extensive research into the conflicts and cooperation that drive Dictyostelium amoebas (slime molds) and .

"Adaptation is what makes living things different from nonliving things, to my mind, so the concept of organism is centered on that," Queller said. A colony of is an organism, the authors argue, because of its sense of shared purpose. A high degree of cooperation and low level of conflict - even when the potential for conflict is there - is a primary trait of an organism, whether its components share a body or not.

Their scheme centers on charts that separate living things into four groups, based on observed levels of cooperation and conflict. "One thing I think is really important about the paper, and it's fairly simple, is the idea that the opposite of high cooperation is not conflict. It's absence of cooperation," said Strassmann. "That allows us to put conflict on a different axis from cooperation, and divide the social space into , societies, competitors and simple groups."

Queller and Strassmann analyze dozens of species in three distinct classes of groups to determine where they land on the organismal charts, based on their levels of cooperation and conflict.

On the cellular level, whales, mice, redwoods, the malarial parasite Plasmodium in mosquitoes and Dictyostelium rank high on the organismality scale for their levels of cooperation with little conflict.

Humans are obviously organismal, Queller and Strassmann agree. All the body parts, from the macro level (arms and legs) to the micro (cells) work nicely together with very little conflict. But unlike the honeybee colony, a city is not organismal. Though the human colony requires a great deal of cooperation to keep it running, it is, they said, "far too full of conflicts."

On the level of groups of multicellular individuals, the Portuguese man-of-war is a paragon of organismality. Technically a colony of sea-going polyps, each polyp seems to know its place, taking on a specialized duty that contributes to the survival of the whole. "The cooperators have become so close as to blur their boundaries," they wrote.

In the third grouping of two-species pairings that may seem simply symbiotic, they find close cooperation without conflict is often necessary for the survival of both parties. The relationship between mitochondria and the host cells they power is one example; bobtail squid and the bacteria that allow them to light up in return for sustenance is another. The authors put the relationship between lions and gazelles at the opposite end of the scale for obvious reasons.

More information: View the paper online at rstb.royalsocietypublishing.or… content/364/1533.toc

Source: Rice University (news : web)

Explore further: Darwin 2.0: Scientists shed new light on how species diverge

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frajo
1 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2009
It was about time Heraklitos's "polemos panton men patir esti" (war is father of all things) was put into perspective.
designmemetic
not rated yet Nov 10, 2009
seems like the new semantic game is deciding what is cooperation and what is confict. How did they determine this. I'm thinking of the human body with allergies or cancer does not suddenly become more than one organism. or does it?
Ethelred
5 / 5 (1) Nov 10, 2009
A colony of honeybees is an organism, the authors argue, because of its sense of shared purpose.
I agree with that conclusion. And the shared purpose is the reproduction of reproducing parts, everything else exists to support that.
seems like the new semantic game is deciding what is cooperation and what is confict.
It is not mere semantics. In this case cooperation is working together to enhance the odds of reproduction. Conflict is working against reproduction.
I'm thinking of the human body with allergies or cancer does not suddenly become more than one organism. or does it?
No. Allergies are an error in the immune response. Cancer is when the supporting parts stop cooperating with the reproducing parts. Since cancer stops reproduction and cannot reproduce(outside of labs) outside the body it cannot be considered an organism under the definition in the article.

Or at least in my interpretation of it.

Ethelred
Marquette
not rated yet Nov 19, 2009
If you remove the gut flora from a human, without which the human cannot have a functioning digestive system, do you still have a whole human, or a partial human? Or are the bacteria merely symbionts?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Nov 19, 2009
If you remove the gut flora from a human, without which the human cannot have a functioning digestive system, do you still have a whole human, or a partial human? Or are the bacteria merely symbionts?

We should view the local biosphere as an organism. All living beings need to be connected to it to survive. Humans are not autonomous.
Ethelred
not rated yet Nov 20, 2009
If you remove the gut flora from a human, without which the human cannot have a functioning digestive system, do you still have a whole human, or a partial human?


You have a whole human with a temporary digestive problem. The bacteria can be replaced. Many humans have done this after heavy doses of penicillin.

Or are the bacteria merely symbionts?


Pretty much. They can be replaced with a new set and the human's DNA will remain the same.

Now the mitochondria are another story altogether. They are not mere symbionts. Change them and you change to some extent. More so for women than men since we men do not pass on our mitochondrial DNA.

You could think of it as sexual discrimination on the cellular level. Or payback for not getting pregnant ourselves.

Ethelred

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