Is Nature a Colonialist? By Howard Bloom

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Is Nature A ColonialistHoward Bloom

Once upon a time, roughly 3.85 billion years ago, there was only a teaspoon of life on this planet.  And that teaspoon was up against a deadline.  In its future were 142 mass extinctions.  Mass extinctions caused by guess what?  Nature.  Yes, Mother Nature herself.

To beat the next cataclysm, the first teaspoonful of life had to fan out into the wilderness of chaos and catastrophe. It had to generate as many new forms as possible. It had to  invent as many new ways of eating its environment as it could. And it had to turn as much pristinematter into life-stuff as possible before the first mass extinction could stop it in its tracks. In other words, that tiny teaspoonful had to kidnap, seduce, and recruit as many dead molecules as it could and insert those dead molecules into the fragile enterpise of life. It had to find as many cracks, crevasses, and creases as it could in which to survive.  And to do more than merely survive, to thrive.

That’s whenSo bacteria beganshow up to desecrate the gorgeous virginal glasses churned out bynew volcanoes’ glasses. But the plunderers weare not impressive. In fact, they weare appallingly mundane. They weare a mere two microns in size. Two millionths of a meter. A forty thousandth of an inch.

  Some looked deceptively ordinary. They weare tiny, Frisbee-like discs. Some weare a bit more distinguished. Their surfaces weare wrinkled. And others weare “bacillar”—they weare shaped like sausages. But these harmless-looking little things weare more disruptive than they looked. They weare capable of clawing nature and slashing their surroundings. They weare “endolithic”—they invented new waysknow how to live inside of rock. And they weare “chasmoliths”—they perfected the art of living in cracks, fissures, bubbles, and the micro-pockets called “vesicles”.[i]

  Which means that these professional looters soughteek out weaknesses—tiny fractures, hairline cracks. Then they invaded. They penetrated. And they made the cracks and fractures bigger. To put it in environmentalist terms, they ravaged, pillaged, and raped. They weare also masters of colonialism, imperialism, and manifest destiny, virtuosos of the development of real estate. They builtd homes.  Not just individual homes. They builtd architectural structures that housed entire colonies. They builtd the equivalent of domes enclosing entire nations.

  Some microbial armies constructed tubes of titanium oxide to house their metropolises. Some builtd capsules and sheaths.[ii] Others laidy down massive platforms, “bedding planes”[iii] five to ten microns thick on which an entire colony couldan settle down, platforms embedded with primitive data networks, chemical data webs.[iv] And these bacteria becameare masters of material engineering.

  Like concrete craftsmen impregnating their slurry[v] with gravel, the platform makers strengthened their building material by mixing in aragonite, calcite, gypsum, quartz, and halite.[vi]  Minerals “stolen” from their “innocent” environment.  This was materialism taken to the nth degree. Some platform-makers wentgo farther. They manufactured a construction material with the sort of molecular structure we use in plastic—polymers.[vii]

  We make our plastic by linking identical molecules of hydrocarbons[viii] in long chains. But bacteria cranked out their polymers, their plastics, by linking long chains of identical sugar molecules.

What technological hubris! Tubes of titanium oxide? Polymer sheets? Bedding planes? Surely these weare Franken-products. Things that hadve never existed in nature. Things that should never have been.

  The bacterial manufacturers of these unnatural chemical constructions use their ability to fabricate misshapen substances to ravaged the untouched nakedness of the volcanic glasses and the rest of nature’s pure rock face.. Some microbial societies used their polymers to turn tiny tunnels five to ten microns long into communal homes.

Other bacterial infrastructure builders produced what we call biofilms, thin film coatings that housed entire colonies. Or films that functioned like rainforests, housing colonies of multitudinous species, a plethora of colonies of different kinds of micro creatures that workedtogether to do their thing. These biofilms weare so flexible that they couldan graffiti every wrinkle of the underside of a complex “irregular pumice-encrusted surface,” clinging to it as skin-tight as spray paint.

  The colony-building wais ugly. Some invaders manufactured an ooze, a gel, within which the entire community of colony members couldan hive. Others mass produced another kind of semi-liquid protective material in which to establish their housing tracts—slime.[ix] And some oozed a noxious sludge that requireds a complex chemical trick, a materials engineering high-wire act—a metabolic strategy, an industrial process—called fractionation.[x]

  Fractionation is the process that we wouldill someday use in oil refineries. It producess foul-smelling wastes. The end product for bacterial fractionators wasis a black, sometimes solid, sometimes liquid hydrocarbon called bitumen. A pollutant. The stuff from which we get oil and natural gas. In other words, the first life forms used the sort of industrial processes that we are taught to loathe. The sort that we callare told are environmental nightmares.

  But the life forms that showed up to eat what volcanic and tectonic conflict hadve produced weare not satisfied creating environmental outragesnightmare in the cracks of volcanic glass. They also invaded the volcanic sands and dusts in between these jewels. They infestedindividual sand particles in the vicinity. They invaded and colonized the space between the particles.[xi] And they wentgo beyond the sands, overrunning and plundering the tiny bubbles in volcanic rocks like pumice.

  The first generations of glass, sand, and stone invaders weare rough riders, they figured outknow how to live off the land. Technically they weare called autotrophs. They dido not need other life forms to lay a path and make things easy for them. They themselves were the creators of new paths. They weare the pioneers and thugs thatwho specialized in kidnapping, seducing, and recruiting truly dead atoms and knitting them into the process of life. And they hadve no sense of reverence, limitations, or deference.

  They corroded raw glass and rock. They snatched dissolved carbon dioxide from the water of the seas[xii] and pocketed the carbon molecules that they needed to knit protein, cell walls, and DNA. They priedy atoms of iron and manganese out of the volcanic glass, cementedthem into their own bodies, and used them as electron donors. They kidnapped, seduced, and recruited atoms of sulfur dioxide from the seawater and used them as electron acceptors.

  Meanwhile their cousins grabbed virgin methane and hydrogen sulphide emerging from sea floor seeps and used them for food and fuel, thus advancing the common project of life:  kidnapping, seducing, and recruiting non-living things into the process of biology.[xiii]

  The volcanic glass looters, methane eaters, and hydrogen sulphide swallowers weare not alone. They hadve trillions of trillions of distant relatives. The descendants of the first teaspoon of life have turned themselves into a vast family of life forms that insinuated themselves wherever they couldan invade. The extended family of plunderers specializeds in twisting nature’s arm and distorting her beyond belief.

This extended clanIt specializeds in upsetting “nature’s balance” by turning nature’s tortures into treats. Bacteria feasteds in the “abyssal plains that cover vast stretches of the deep.”[xiv] They feasteds nearly four miles beneath the surface of the sea where the temperature wais just above freezing. They feasteds in the inconceivable depths where it can be “extremely cold, utterly dark, often low in oxygen and smothered by a pressure 1,000 times greater than at the surface—so immense it alters biochemistry.”[xv]  Yes, bacteria ate their fill in pressures so immense that their massive crush alters biochemistry itself.

  And this ravenousit horde feasteds in deep water plumes where the thermal weather is like a deep-fat-fryer engulfed in flames, plumes where the temperatures wereis from 250 degrees to 700 degrees fahrenheit[xvi]—nearly 500 degrees above the boiling point, hells where only the mash of pressure keptep the water from turning to steam. This gang of banditsIt also feasteds near eighteen-story-high undersea chimneys of heat and chemicals called “black smokers.”

  And the clanit sated its appetitess around heat vents with a very different chemistry whose dominant colors weare not black, but white and gray,[xvii] spires and cliffs where the hordes of microorganisms tunneled into the “the porous channels and crevices of the carbonate towers,” where they attached themselves in “polymer-encased biofilms” to the outsides of the chimneys, where they established footholds in the chimneys’ dark, oxygen-less insides,[xviii] and where they formed disgustingly mucus-like “dense strands of filamentous bacteria…in the warm fluids issuing from the summit.”[xix]

  But these invaders didon’t just adapt to the way things weare, they adapted to the way that things refuse to stay the same. They adapted to nature’s very backbone—change. Says the University of Washington team that explored the Lost City Hydrothermal Field twelve miles west of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, “Results from next-generation pyrosequencing show that the archaeal and bacterial biofilm communities underwent dramatic changes as environmental conditions in the chimneys changed over a 1,000-year period.”[xx]

  English translation? Bacteria like those in The Lost City Field surfed the waves of insult, threat, and instability. How dido communities of mere microorganisms ride the tides of environmental pitch, plunge, and sway? They reveled in ripping up the “natural order” and putting it back together again in whole new ways. They reveled in transforming impossible environments into paradisezones.

Bacteria like those The bacteria of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field even used the chemical energy[xxi] of rock emerging from the staggering pressures within the earth and decompressing, the “serpentization reaction within the Atlantis Massif,” to pull off “abiotic hydrocdarbon production.”  Voracious bacterial colonies seized dead carbon and hydrogen atoms and compacted them into a comfort food for specialized eaters called methanotrophs.[xxii]

  That meat and potatoes for these gourmet microbes with an off-beat taste wais methane, one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.[xxiii] Methane is the core ingredient of what we call natural gas. The clans of microbial plunderers  paidy no attention to the fact that nature rebuffeds them in every conceivable way. They weare disaster-riders and catastrophe-tamers.  They worked in waters almost as acidic as the caustic stuff that you pour down your drain to unclog it, Liquid-Plumr.[xxiv]

  These audacious bacteriay worked where “mantle rock has been thrust up through the seafloor, exposing it to seawater and serpentinization.”[xxv] They exploited and desecrated the “chemical rich water [that] oozes from the seafloor…around the edges of continents.”[xxvi]They even invaded rock 1.7 miles beneath the surface of the stone at the bottom of the sea and dreaw “their energy from chemical compounds, hydrogen and sulfates—produced by the slow decay of radioactive elements in the rocks.”[xxvii]

  Yes, you read that right.  Some bacterial colonies invented techniques with which to harvest the fruits of a deadly poison, radioactivity. Others invaded “seamounts, the peaks of undersea volcanic mountains,”[xxviii]  where up to half the species that showed up to plunder the place rejiggered their genes and invented utterly unique adaptations, utterly unique ways to turn their innocent environment into Franken-snacks and grotesque treats. These peak-conquerors also invented utterly unique new bodies, new species, that showed up no place else on earth.[xxix]  They are still inventing new forms and new ways to eat their environment today.

  In fact, in some of these extreme environments “there is at least 100 times greater species diversity than had been expected.”[xxx] One hundred times more techniques, tricks, and tools for exploitation than we thought. One hundred times more forms of opportunism and innovation whose instruction manuals are written into strings of genes. One hundred times as many ways of violating the status quo with bio-technologies. One hundred times more forms of materialism, consumerism, and waste.  One hundred times more ways to “despoil” the virginal and the pristine.

How in the  world did the first teaspoon of life take hold on a planet of climate catastrophe?  Life’s secret will not come as a surprise.  Life did not triumph by living in harmony with its environment.  Far from it.  Life survived by lashing out against the “natural order.”  Life survived by sinning against nature and inventing a freak-farm of Franken-forms.  Franken forms able to eat the roiling disaster of their environment and turn it into bio-stuff.  Life survived by radically reinventing the hell of stone that nature had made. In fact, life survived by remanufacturing the planet.  Remaking it right down to its very chemistry. 

______

Howard Bloom has been called the Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud of the 20th century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV.  This article is a sneak preview of his upcoming 2023 book, his eighth, The Case of the Sexual Cosmos: Everything You Know About Nature is Wrong.  Bloom’s book Global Brain was the subject of a symposium thrown by the Office of the Secretary of Defense with representatives from the State Department, the  Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT.

[i] Francis Westall, “Early life: nature, distribution and evolution” in Origins and Evolution of Life: an Astrobiological Perspective,  edited by Muriel Gargaud, Purificación López-Garcìa, Hervé Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 402.
[ii] Jost Wingender, Thomas R. Neu, Hans-Curt Flemming, “What are Bacterial Extracellular Polymeric Substances?” in Microbial Extracellular Polymeric Substances: Characterization, Structure and Function, edited by Jost Wingender, Thomas R. Neu, Hans-Curt Flemming, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1999, p. 12.
[iii] Frances Westall, M.J. De Wit, J. Dann, et al, “Early Archaean fossil bacteria and biofilms in hydrothermally-influenced shallow water sediments. Barberton greenstone belt. South Africa,” Precambrian Research,  February, 2001, pp. 93-116.
[iv] Eshel Ben-Jacob, Israela Becker and Yoash Shapira, “Reflections on Biochemical Linguistics of Bacteria,” School of Physics and Astronomy, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel-Aviv University, 2003.  Eshel Ben Jacob and Yoash Shapira, “Meaning-Based Natural Intelligence Vs. Information-Based Artificial Intelligence,” School of Physics and Astronomy, Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences
Tel Aviv University, pp. 25-28.  http://tamar.tau.ac.il/~eshel/papers/meaning%20based.pdf, downloaded 9-5-2013.   Eshel Ben Jacob, Yoash Shapira, Alfred I. Tauber, “Seeking the foundations of cognition in bacteria: From Schrodinger's negative entropy to latent information,” Physica A 359 (2006), pp. 506, 512. Eshel Ben-Jacob, personal communication, January 19, 2004.
[v] Irving Kett, Engineered Concrete: Mix Design and Test Methods, Second Edition,
 Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press 2010, pp. 5-6.
[vi] Robert E. Riding, Stanley M. Awramik, editors, Microbial Sediments, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2000, p. 214.  Francis Westall, “Early life: nature, distribution and evolution,” in Origins and Evolution of Life: an Astrobiological Perspective,  edited by Muriel Gargaud, Purificación López-Garcìa, Hervé Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 402.
[vii] Westall,  “Early life: nature, distribution and evolution,” p. 402. Lost City Research, “Biology,” in Lost City: One of the Most Extreme Environments  on Earth website, University of Washington,  2003, http://www.lostcity.washington.edu/story/Biology, downloaded  7-11-2013. David G. Davies, “Regulation of Matrix Polymer in Biofilm Formation and Dispersion,” in Microbial Extracellular Polymeric Substances: Characterization, Structure and Function, edited by Jost Wingender, Thomas R. Neu, Hans-Curt Flemming, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1999, p. 104.
[viii] Wikipedia, Ethylene Polymerization, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethylene#Polymerization, downloaded 9-5-2013.
[ix] Jost Wingender, Thomas R. Neu, Hans-Curt Flemming, “What are Bacterial Extracellular Polymeric Substances?” in Microbial Extracellular Polymeric Substances: Characterization, Structure and Function, edited by Jost Wingender, Thomas R. Neu, Hans-Curt Flemming, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1999, pp. 7-9.
[x] Francis Westall, “Early life: nature, distribution and evolution” in Origins and Evolution of Life: an Astrobiological Perspective,  edited by Muriel Gargaud, Purificación López-Garcìa, Hervé Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 402.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Richard Cowen, History of Life, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2013.
[xiii] D.W.J. Bosence and PH. Bridges, “A review of the origin and evolution of carbonate mud-mounds,” in C. L. V. Monty, Carbonate Mud-Mounds: Their Origin and Evolution, The International Association of Sedimentologists, Oxford, UK: Blackwell-Science, 1995, p. 8.
[xiv] Mark Shrope and John Pickrell, “Introduction: Mysteries of the deep sea,” New Scientist,  September 4, 2006, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9967#.Ud8nY0GTjeI  downloaded 7-11-2013.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Helen Matsos, “Lost City Life Methane-Powered,” Astrobiology Magazine,  Posted:   03/06/05,
http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/1470/lost-city-life-methane-powered, downloaded 7-11-2013
[xvii] ibid.
[xviii] Lost City Research, “Biology,” Lost City: One of the Most Extreme Environments  on Earth, University of Washington, 2003,  http://www.lostcity.washington.edu/story/Biology,  downloaded 7-11-2013.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] M.J. Russell, A.J. Hall, W. Martin, “Serpentinization as a source of energy at the origin of life.” Geobiology, December 2010, pp. 355-371.
[xxii] H.E. Elsaied, T. Hayashi, T. Naganuma, “Molecular analysis of deep-sea hydrothermal vent aerobic methanotrophs by targeting genes of 16S rRNA and particulate methane monooxygenase,” Marine Biotechnology, September-October 2004, pp. 503-509.
[xxiii] Lost City Research, “Chemistry,” Lost City: One of the Most Extreme Environments  on Earth website, University of Washington, 2003, http://www.lostcity.washington.edu/story/Chemistry, downloaded 7-11-2013.
[xxiv] Helen Matsos, “Lost City Life Methane-Powered,” Astrobiology Magazine, posted: 03/06/05, http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/1470/lost-city-life-methane-powered, downloaded 7-11-2013.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi]  Mark Shrope and John Pickrell, “Introduction: Mysteries of the Deep Sea.”
[xxvii]  Helen Matsos, “Earth's Hidden Biospheres,” Astrobiology Magazine, posted  11/12/06,
http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/2142/earths-hidden-biospheres, downloaded  7-11-2013.
[xxviii] Mark Shrope and John Pickrell, “Introduction: Mysteries of the deep sea.”
[xxix] Ibid.
[xxx] Helen Matsos, “Earth's Hidden Biospheres.”

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