by Whit Gibbons

February 26, 2006

I am still amazed by our rapid ascent into the computer age. And intrigued with the seemingly endless questions that abound. Where do emails go when we finally “delete” them from the “recycle bin”? Who decided to use @ to set up email addresses? How can so much information be stored and retrieved from a wafer-thin CD? And what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with ecology and the environment?

Every plant and animal species on earth has something in common with computers, specifically with data retrieval. Like computer programs, all organisms require translation to be understood. Each living plant or animal and each computer hard drive is a package containing an overwhelming amount of information that upon casual observation is inaccessible. It must be translated before it can be used. Nonetheless, hidden attributes and stored knowledge are present, regardless of whether a translator is available.

A computer’s storage capacity is impressive. Today's desktop computers can store and process more information than could be handled in the 1970s by a computer the size of a building. A handful of CDs can contain all the books of the Bible, Darwin's "Origin of Species," Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and the vast knowledge base of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But to be accessed and used, the information requires the proper operating system and a knowledgeable operator.

The information stored in a living organism involves the complexity of genetics, biochemistry, and physical structure. Properly translated, some of the stored data have proved invaluable to our agricultural systems and the field of medicine. In addition, by unraveling and understanding biological processes, we have vastly increased our basic knowledge and appreciation of the natural world.

Practical discoveries about plants and animals that benefit humans are numerous, and they increase every year. Many applications are developed before technological innovations are applied. For example, the discovery that some chrysanthemums produce a chemical that repels many insects that might otherwise eat them was an early agricultural advancement. After identifying the active chemical ingredient, pyrethrum, scientists developed techniques to grind up flower heads to produce the powerful insecticide known as pyrethrin.

The genetic information that produces the chemical is stored in the plant. That information was always there, but it had to be retrieved before humans could use it. In this case, horticulturists were the translators, recognizing that insects avoided chrysanthemums and determining that the plant might contain valuable information for agricultural production.

The medical arena is full of successful uses of biologically stored information. The rosy periwinkle of Madagascar is a well-known example of a tiny plant that produces a chemical used to combat childhood leukemia. One of the most effective painkillers in the field of medicine is morphine, which was originally extracted from the opium poppy. The toxic chemicals produced on the skin of the poison dart frogs of Colombia offer promise as a painkiller many times more powerful than morphine. More recently, the toxic skin secretions of one species of poison frog appear to be a successful antibiotic to certain strains of Staphylococcus bacteria, which have now evolved to a point that most modern drugs are no longer effective.

Examples of stored biochemical information used in agriculture and medicine are numerous, but those we have taken advantage of are only a small sample of what is available. We have used far less than 1 percent of the organisms on earth, not because they do not have valuable qualities but because we have not yet properly translated their attributes. They might be compared to a CD without a mechanism for playing it: we can’t know whether it contains music, a novel, or mathematical equations. Without the proper translation we do not know what information is stored in any living organism or what it may have to offer. A cure for bird flu? The elimination of fire ants in places where they do not belong? Agricultural pest controls that reduce our dependence on toxic chemicals? The answers may be out there somewhere in the living world.

Computers are a remarkable phenomenon and will no doubt shape the direction of human culture and development during the next century. Like the storage mechanisms of computers, plants and animals also contain vast amounts of information, which with the proper translation may prove valuable to us and future generations.

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