Do Cells Think?

The non-teleological perspective has long viewed living things as passive participants of the interplay between stochastic events and environmental pressures, where mutations that just happened to exist are favored in an environment that just happened to exist.  For the non-teleologist, the environment is indeed the driving force and organisms are indeed passive and are being shaped by forces that they do not control.

Yet the hypothesis of front-loading allows us to predict that some aspect of evolution is under intrinsic control.  Evidence that living things  play an active role in their adaptation and evolution would be one way to enhance the plausibility of such control, thus becoming evidence of front-loading.

Recently, I just ran across a fascinating review article.

Here is the abstract:

A microorganism has to adapt to changing environmental conditions in order to survive. Cells could follow one of two basic strategies to address such environmental fluctuations. On the one hand, cells could anticipate a fluctuating environment by spontaneously generating a phenotypically diverse population of cells, with each subpopulation exhibiting different capacities to flourish in the different conditions. Alternatively, cells could sense changes in the surrounding conditions – such as temperature, nutritional availability or the presence of other individuals – and modify their behavior to provide an appropriate response to that information. As we describe, examples of both strategies abound among different microorganisms. Moreover, successful application of either strategy requires a level of memory and information processing that has not been normally associated with single cells, suggesting that such organisms do in fact have the capacity to ‘think’.

From: S. Ramanathan and J. R. Broach. 2007. Do cells think?  Cell. Mol. Life Sci. 64: 1801 – 1804.

I’m going to talk a little bit about a really neat example that is outlined in the article.


5 responses to “Do Cells Think?

  1. Wow that is really cool. It reminds me of something I saw the other day on the discovery channel. Ok it was a while ago, but I have been meaning to ask your opinion about it. Basically they were talking about areas of water on the tops of mountains (and I could be butchering this completly, so if anybody watched this feel free to chime in). When they got to the tops of these really high mountains they were puzzled by the red water. Under further inspection they realized that because of the high elevation/ altitude the bacteria turned to a red color to save itself from the heat. I thought this sounded like something that could be frontloaded. Any thoughts on that?

  2. While I’d assume it isn’t the direction you work from, aren’t there teleological perspectives that see teleological at work in environmental constraints? I recall Denton arguing primarily from the viewpoint that certain fundamental features of the universe (the properties of carbon, etc) constrain/encourage the development of life, and particular forms of life.

  3. Hi Gore,

    I have not heard of that example before, but it would be cool. I would view something like that not as an example of front-loading, but as something that supports the plausibility of front-loading, for it would be yet another piece of evidence that life exerts some control over its environment in its quest to exist into the future.

    Hi Pgo,

    For methodological reasons I outline in my book, I have primarily focused on front-loading in association with the origin of life on this planet. To focus on FLE from an environmental perspective would take the FL event beyond the origin of life to the origin of the Universe. I am clearly receptive to that idea (as I’m not one who argues abiogenesis is impossible). In fact, here are three essays where I subtly point in that direction:

  4. Microorganisms, cells, are soulless creatures, Mike Gene, mindless automatons. Of course, they can’t “think.”

    What in the world could you be thinking?!

  5. Pingback: News from the World of Biology «

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