Red Symons: Divided We Conquer

Red Symons: Divided We Conquer

I was once; a single cell.

My memory of this is hazy. In our infancy we rely on the stories of our elders for earlier behaviours. Before that, it’s like putting together the puzzle pieces of a deceased estate. Discarded and abandoned fragments are pondered over. Is this relic meaningful?

Guesstimates put the birth of the first multicellular entities from the single cells that came before at 2 billion years ago – give or take…

Now my multicellularity is a socialist commonwealth.

My skin, my heaviest organ is the first line of defence. These are the foot soldiers of a trench warfare. My outer skin is a membrane of repulsion denying entry to the unwelcome – pretty much everything.

I have delegated to my nails the task of clawing and scratching. I vouchsafe that should they break I will rehabilitate them and reassure them that fists will back them up in a skirmish.

My four limbs are purposed for action in the field. My arms are the artillery and my legs are the cavalry. Fight or flight is according to instructions from the higher levels of management. “Stand Down!” is ordered each night.

I am a doughnut,  a toroid, a ring. My surface doesn’t stop at my mouth. It continues out of sight internally. I have an inner surface as well as an outer one. You know its exit strategy.

My inner surface incorporates material through the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines with a brisk bureaucratic process like a collection of mid-level civil servants. That which gets past the first security level of sight, sound, smell, and taste, is then broken down by the teeth and stomach for further analysis by the pharmacological departments of liver and kidneys.

Their skilled judgement is rarely questioned by high command.

My intestines are the grunts, sometimes audible, of the process. They outsource some of the work to the gig economy of bacteria et al. These outsourced foreign workers don’t have permanent residency but we welcome them and we thank them for their service.

Heart and lungs are the supply chain by which the plunder of the outside world is equitably distributed according to the needs of each cell.

Strictly speaking, there are some cells that no longer perform their original useful function. The vestigial muscles on the auricle of the ear once cocked the ear to find the direction of the sound, like those of a dog or a cat. Occasionally I miss them but it’s also good and proper to provide for those retired from active service.

High command seems to be located in the brain. Is this just a trick of the eyes and ears and nose and taste-buds? It makes sense for these surveillance posts to be in rapid response, close to the cabinet room of decision making.

There is not always unanimous agreement. My nether regions can be hawkish and empire building. Eager to spread the mission and the message of our commonwealth, with the exchange of fluids, they embark on outside forays from time to time into the inner worlds of other, similar replicants.

This military industrial complex must be overseen, reined in and contained.

This military industrial complex must be overseen, reined in and contained.

My choices are for the greater good of the greater number. Anecdote has shown that I will relinquish a limb, cut it off, bite it off, if my remaining cells can then rehabilitate and persist.

If you have a better idea then bring it to the parliament.

I was once; a single cell.

There’s a yeast used for beer and bread which is a single cell. Scientists, reasonably intelligent people with a narrowly focussed education, left alone to play with complicated toys, have tweaked these single cells.

By centrifuging them in test tubes, William Ratcliff from the Georgia Institute of Technology encouraged them to coalesce in a cooperative way. They have formed “snowflakes” – multicellular colonies. These microscopic entities, invisible to the eye, whilst being a socialist breakthrough have, like a snowflake, a strictly limited size.

Interestingly, the cells which stay together are called “mother and daughter” bonds. I guess no-one can object to that. In truth, they coalesce most readily when they are genetically identical. It’s as though they are holding hands but as the “snowflake” becomes too big they break off and float away.

It’s not only “just like real life”. It is real life.

Another scientist, Ozan Bozdag, learning of this from his colleagues over some after-work beer and bread (that is a complete invention for pleasing narrative purposes) postulated, improbably, that starving the yeast cells of oxygen would encourage them to more readily clump together like a family huddled in a snowdrift.

The cells responded to this adversity by clinging to one another and modifying themselves, lengthening a little and, for those cells deep in the clump, assisting in the delivery of nutrients and the retrieval of waste product, dispatching it back into the world.

Rather than tenuous “snowflake” attachments these new clumping multicells have been likened to entangled vines, wrapped around each other and difficult to separate.

The “snowflakes” took 60 days to microscopically form a couple of hundred cells. With the new approach, after less than two years, the multicellular clumps were 20,000 time bigger with half a million cells and visible to the naked eye.

And there was life.

Once I was; a single cell. (The semicolon asserts and extends and challenges the sentence. The whipping tail of the comma seeks the egg of the full stop.)

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