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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Column: Things that eat

*Editor’s note: I realize that I have drastically oversimplified many of these concepts, but there is just too much information to adequately express it all. You could easily fill 500 single-spaced pages explaining just the first paragraph. For you organic chemistry people, the size of this column is limited by steric hinderance. For the non-o-chem people, the number of things is too damn high.

In the beginning, billions of years ago, there was a soup of free floating nucleotides that, through molecular interaction, grouped together into the first self-replicating entity. Translation: once upon a time, there were a bunch of “almost-things” that grouped together into the first thing. This is generally considered to be a good thing.

The groups of nucleotides needed to replicate themselves, and to do so, needed to assimilate more free-floating nucleotides as raw material for growth. Translation: to make more of themselves, the things ate more almost-things. The problem is that the things were unstable; they would break all the time. This is generally considered to be a bad thing. The good thing is that the things were in water.

The groups of nucleotides that ended up in hydrophobic membranes were more successful at replicating. They were able to protect themselves from the harmful environment and gather nutrients at the same time. In other words, the things that could protect themselves made more of themselves. This allowed the things to eat in peace. Needless to say, membranes became all the rage.

The organisms that began to specialize within themselves were far more successful at surviving. Some of these membraned organisms were smaller than others and were absorbed by these larger individuals. Instead of being killed, the smaller organism and the larger organism began to work together, becoming more successful than they would have been on their own. Translation: small things and big things teamed up. These thing teams were very good at surviving and eating more things. Teaming up is a good thing.

Some of these smaller organisms, once inside the larger organisms, were able to generate energy from food (mitochondria) or light (chloroplasts), or even repair broken parts of the larger organism. This specialization allowed the larger organism to focus its energies on replication and growth. In digestible terms, the small things did a lot of work for the big things they lived inside. This allowed the big things to be better hosts to the small things. When things cooperate, it’s a win-win.

As the larger organisms grew even larger, it became a challenge to get nutrients for all the parts within. This limited how big and how successful these organisms could be. These organisms developed a system, called the cytoskeletal system, that transported nutrients to where they were needed. Translation: the big thing could not adequately feed all of the small guest things. It needed its small guests to survive, so the big thing invested in a feeding and transport system to get all of the things it ate, to all of its honored guests. Within the cellular soup, there was not enough food. Ironic.

Now that the large organisms were powerful, effective and numerous, they needed to be able to move on to greener pastures … or puddles. Some of these large organisms developed methods of quickly moving through their watery environment, such as flagella, pseudopodia and cilia. Basically, the large things needed to get to places where there were more small things to eat. The large things built crazy tail-like things that they would whip around quickly to move from A to B.

Some of these larger organisms began to group together. They were more successful operating as a collective unit than they were by themselves. At first, these groups consisted of relatively similar organisms with no specialization. The big things grouped together, because as we said earlier, cooperation is a good thing.

These groups began to specialize; individuals would perform different tasks, making the community more efficient. Some would eat, others would convert the food to energy, others would protect the group, and still others would help the group move. Coloniality is a bunch of the same thing, doing the same thing, together. Polymorphism is a bunch of similar things, doing different things really well, together.

Once again, the problem arose of how to get nutrients to all the different members of the colony. A vascular system was developed that could effectively send food and energy to all members. This allowed organisms to grow even larger and further specialize. Basically, not all the things were getting food … evolution fixed that.

This went on for some time, and even though the form of these organisms changed, the way they dealt with problems stayed pretty constant. New parts of the organism began to further specialize, allowing the organism to become ever more efficient at surviving. These new parts needed energy, and thus the cycle continues.

Some more time passes, and we get to humans, and the human brain. The brain is so specialized that it negates the need for most of the other specializations we have developed over the year. We have motors to replace our motor control and delivery to replace hunting. Hell, we even have IVs to replace eating.

Things need to eat, and it is amazing what things will do to get the things they need.

If science had been explained using the word “things”, it might have been a lot easier to understand. Use your computer thing to reach HUDSON LOFCHIE at science@theaggie.org.


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