Tag Archives: evolution

The patient genius of transmutation

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is an emission nebula located 8 000 light-years away. This stunning new image was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate its 26th year in space.

“All is flux,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said 2500 years ago. “Nothing stays still.” He offered us a perfect description of transmutation, one of the great powers that cosmologist Brian Swimme ascribes to the universe. This is the third of those powers that I have explored, and one of the most intriguing. Since the first flaring forth 13.7 billion years ago, not one iota of the universe has ever been still or remained the same. The first particles became atoms, the atoms coalesced into galaxies of stars. The stars burned elements into existence. When those early stars exploded the elements flew out and gathered into masses that became more stars, planets, mountains, rivers, trees, animals, birds, us.

On our own planet great plates move, meet, push up mountains, pleat valleys into existence. Ever-moving rivers wear canyons into stone. Winds blow, clouds form and dissipate, rain falls. Plants grow. Animals roam and help create the changing landscapes. Stillness is always an illusion since even the longest lasting phenomenon is on a planet whirling around its axis, racing along an orbit around the sun at 68,000 miles per hour. The solar system is flinging itself toward the Hercules constellation at 720 miles a minute. Our whole galaxy is swirling toward Andromeda at two million miles a day. The universe is still expanding from the force of its birth. 

A tall purple fleabane (Ergieron peregrinus) with two butteries in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

All of the visible details on this purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrines) are flowers. The center disk flowers are yellow, the ray flowers are lavender. The vast Asteraceae family has been able to dominate the planet by evolving an abundance of readily available nectar and pollen, enough to feed two butterflies at once. These beauties will fly off and pollinate other fleabanes.

Despite all this drama, transmutation takes its time. From the first unicellular life on our planet to a being with a brain to contemplate it all took 3.5 billion years. There’s perhaps no better example of the power of transmutation than the slow, steady evolution of the many life forms on earth. Darwin called his first draft “The Transmutation of Species.” Going from simple to nucleated cells took the first two billion of those years. Cells joined together to create increasingly complex and diverging forms, constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Beaks adjusting to crack newly evolved seeds. Spines adapting to walking through grasslands after eons in trees. Flowers and pollinators working out their cooperative ventures.

Because of other powers, like cataclysm and transformation, the ride has not been smooth. There have been five major extinctions. But despite those, transmutation has kept steadily on, endlessly and artfully adapting each new and surviving species to the evolving world around them. Some adaptations take 100 generations, others happen swiftly. Most important, they are happening all the time. The Finch Unit on the Galapagos Islands, under the aegis of Rosemary and Peter Grant, discovered in the 1980s that after just a few years of intense drought followed by flooding, certain of the surviving finches began to exhibit adaptive changes. Plants can develop resistance to biocides within a couple of growing seasons. Some bacteria evolve to survive antibiotics almost immediately.

This brings us to Brian’s take on transmutation: that it is a process not only of change but also of responding to constraints. ‘When we look at the way in which life moves from one form to another,’ he says, ‘one of the things we notice is that it uses a form of judgment, of constraint, even rejection. These are powerful processes that enable transmutation to take place.’ He uses the continental plates as an example. When they meet one another their engagement constrains each of them. ‘The resistance, the opposition, is what brings forth the mountain ranges.’

Ocotillo (Fouquieria spendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

Flowers are constrained by the imprudence of pollinating themselves, which weakens their offspring. So they have, like the ocotillo above, developed characteristics —  red, tubular flowers — to work with specific pollinators. Hummingbirds, whose long beaks are perfect for reaching deep into such petals, have also evolved to see red preferentially. Desert plants have been constrained by dryness to evolve leaves into thorns, which hold a layer of protective air against the skin of the stem. Constraint, then, becomes a launching platform for creative, evolutionary solutions. A way that Nature exercises judgment, ‘that leads to excellence of form, or we might say beauty.’

It also leads to intimacy: the hummingbird and the ocotillo are intimates. The Galapagos finches with beaks to match their preferred seeds have an intimate relationship with the plants that produce those seeds. The cactus finches eat cactus flowers, pollen, and seeds. They drink cactus nectar. They mate, nest and sleep in cactus. In return, they pollinate it. They are deeply and inextricably linked. One day changes may create constraints that break those bonds, and further evolution will happen.

Adaptation: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station by Betsey Crawford

Intimately related: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

This is the profoundly creative process that forms ecosystems, entire biomes with endless interdependent living threads. We emerged from this process, we live in it, and we are threatening it. We have set up many constraints: laws, customs, traditions, religions. But these all address human interpersonal behavior, taking ‘for granted that the fundamental focus is the human.’ We have acknowledged few constraints on our relationship to the planet we depend on, and all of nature is suffering from our lack of judgment about and intimacy with our home. 

Only in the last fifty years have we begun to protect air, water, animals. Even so, these laws are under constant attack. This in itself is transmutation. Changes start and stop. Nature experiments, changes her mind, starts again. Constraints arise and must be worked with. Resistance is part of our process of cultural evolution. For all the incessant flux we live among, we are reluctant to change. The great stress of this moment in our history is that we feel we have too little time to make major changes in the way we think and act before irreparable damage is done.

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, a painted schinia (Schinia volupia). Blanket flowers host the larvae of the schinia, and they hang out on the flowers once they emerge. Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But that stress itself will spur the change in consciousness that we need, just as the urgency of an oxygen-toxic atmosphere spurred the evolution of mitochondria that could use the oxygen to fuel life. That burst of available energy led to the great Cambrian explosion of living forms 541 million years ago. This vast, ever-adapting diversity assures us that we live on a planet dedicated to life. Transmutation aims for success, for better adaptations, for prospering ecosystems. That’s its whole point. This doesn’t mean it’s an orderly process, or that all life survives. Far from it. The ones that can’t adapt to new conditions don’t make it. That’s our fear. 

As a culture, we are facing constraints we haven’t faced before. They’ve always been there. But for the last 10,000 years we’ve had an accelerating, expansionist vision of human society: more land, more power, more things. Consumerism is the present toxic crisis. We’re operating out of a tragically limited view of ourselves as human beings. ’Why is the planet withering?’ Brian asks. ‘Primarily because humans have accepted a context that is much too small.’

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

The transmutation of color to match the environment is the difference between life and death for many tasty creatures. A Great Plains toad (Anaxyrus cognates) hides in plain sight in the Konza Prairie Preserve in Manhattan, Kansas

All of these powers work through us. We are saturated with them. Every molecule, every cell, every organ of our body has come to this point through the patient genius of transmutation. We are our present as well as our lineage, every change that has taken place to allow us to arrive at this moment. And we face further changes, as well as the need to make them swiftly. ‘We’re asked to move to a larger context, a planetary level.’ No one on earth wants a withering planet, but such a shift will require what look like sacrifices in our limited context. ‘What aspects of ourselves are we asked to relinquish’ to reach this more expansive vision? One that sees our legacy flowing into all generations to come. 

From here we enter into the heart of the power of transmutation itself. We become this force, as we choose how to change what we value, how we act on our values, how we bring these great powers to bear on our moment. When we step into the larger consciousness of the universe, we are co-creating the evolution of those who will come long after us. ‘We are attempting to become beings that enable the whole to flourish, guided by the moments of beauty in the past, and the visions of beauty in the future.’ This is the Great Work, in Thomas Berry’s words, as we become not only forces for the universe, but enter into our reality as the universe itself.

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal, where the filaments of the beard rub pollen off the underside of the bee, which the pale blue 'shelf' scrapes it off the back. The bee drinks nectar, and as it backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto its back, but the scraper doesn't work in that direction. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal. The filaments of the beard rub pollen off her underside, while the pale blue ‘shelf’ scrapes it off her back. The bee drinks nectar, and as she backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto her. Handily, the scraper doesn’t work in that direction, so off she flies, loaded with pollen. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington

[I love the top image because it looks like earth coalescing. It’s the Bubble Nebula, an emission nebula located 8,000 light-years away, captured by the Hubble telescope. Thanks to ESA/Hubble, via Creative Commons.]

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Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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