ARE PLANTS AND ANIMALS HIDING INFORMATION FROM US?
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?
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.
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," Tolstoys 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 cant 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.
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
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