Journal of Integrative Neuroscience 16 (2017) S27–S36 S27
Understanding the emergence of microbial
consciousness: From a perspective
of the Subject–Object Model (SOM)
J. Shashi Kiran Reddy a,∗and Contzen Pereira b
aIndependent Research Scholar, Bangalore 560064, India
bIndependent Researcher, Mumbai 400 099, India
Abstract. Microorganisms demonstrate conscious-like intelligent behaviour, and this form of consciousness may have emerged
from a quantum mediated mechanism as observed in cytoskeletal structures like the microtubules present in nerve cells which
apparently have the architecture to quantum compute. This paper hypothesises the emergence of proto-consciousness in primi-
tive cytoskeletal systems found in the microbial kingdoms of archaea, bacteria and eukarya. To explain this, we make use of the
Subject–Object Model (SOM) of consciousness which evaluates the rise of the degree of consciousness to conscious behaviour
in these systems supporting the hypothesis of emergence and propagation of conscious behaviour during the pre-Cambrian part
of Earth’s evolutionary history. Consciousness as proto-consciousness or sentience computed via primitive cytoskeletal struc-
tures substantiates as a driver for the intelligence observed in the microbial world during this period ranging from single-cellular
to collective intelligence as a means to adapt and survive. The growth in complexity of intelligence, cytoskeletal system and
adaptive behaviours are key to evolution, and thus supports the progression of the Lamarckian theory of evolution driven by
quantum mediated proto-consciousness to consciousness as described in the SOM of consciousness.
Keywords: Proto-Consciousness, cytoskeleton, Orch-OR theory, microbial intelligence, Lamarckian theory, quantum biology,
The most fundamental physical mechanisms which are involved in the biological systems are dealt
and studied in the new branch of science called Quantum biology. Findings resulting from these inves-
tigations shed light on the possible role of quantum mediated processes in crafting the primitive life
forms and in the emergence of conscious life. Since biological evolution began much after the existence
of energy and matter and its unanimity, the answer to the origin of life actually lies much before the
emergence of viruses, bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. According to Gaia theory, after the formation
of biological matter from chemical constituents there exists a mutual and dynamic interaction between
the two resulting in the process of co-evolution. This means that biological systems interact with sur-
rounding inorganic matter to form a complex, self-regulating and dynamic synergistic system of ecology
which helps in perpetuating and maintaining the conditions for life (Schneider and Boston ).
*Corresponding author. E-mails: firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com.
0219-6352/17/$35.00 © 2017 – IOS Press and the authors. All rights reserved
S28 J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness
The formation of the ﬁrst biological cell forms the basis for all life that now exists on the Gaia. Such
an event is supported by various theories and hypotheses, but with their own pros and cons (Sheldrake
, William , Lipton , Lanza and Berman , Reddy and Pereira [62,64]). With the increased
degrees of freedom driven by various ecological factors this cellar unit slowly started acting as a sepa-
rate entity by itself. The survival necessity of this entity could have triggered the development of various
adaptive mechanisms and every step towards adapting to the environment slowly, might have resulted
in a qualitative property called intelligence, and every action motivated from this intelligence ﬁeld re-
sulting in a speciﬁc behaviour. Environmental and other interactive forces keep these units in a constant
survival challenge and hence create the need for mutual support for the sake of one’s existence. As stated
above, quantum biology is now starting to solve the mysteries associated with the ﬁeld of evolutionary
biology and the origin of life. Though the evolution of life or consciousness in general is a wide theme
to be addressed, in the scope of the present paper, we focus our attention to the study of emergence of
consciousness in the microbial systems. For this purpose, we make use of the Subject–Object Model
(SOM) of consciousness developed by one of the present authors (Reddy ) and extrapolate the Or-
chestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) theory put forth by Hameroff and Penrose . Since the
SOM of consciousness supports the presence of consciousness in all living systems to varying levels
and degrees; which again depends on where a speciﬁc species would fall on the evolutionary scale, it
naturally supports the pansychic view of the world.
In order to understand the evolutionary footsteps of consciousness, one needs a different deﬁnition and
perspective of consciousness from that which we observe in humans. Humans can relate and express their
conscious experiences of life and hence we can set a standard to quantify them, but this is not the case
with other living systems. They exhibit different forms of conscious expressions as observable behaviour
and survival strategies etc. Hence, when we study the evolution of conscious life in these systems, we
need to consider the alterate expressions of consciousness like conscious behaviour as the deciding and
judging criteria. Several forms of conscious behaviours are known to exist across the wide spectra of
non-humans species, and hence there is no reason why arguments for possession of consciousness must
be backed by the existence of the nervous system; a unique and complex functional system, but in its own
place and organism. Though conscious behaviours observed in microorganisms may not be similar to that
of humans, they are unique in their own space; therefore many scientists preferably use the terminology
as sentience or proto-consciousness. In the context of this paper, we discuss the conscious behaviours
exhibited by various microbial systems to understand the primitive forms of conscious expressions along
with the evolving cytoskeleton.
Based on fossil evidence, microbes occupied approximately 2.75–3 billion years of Earth’s evolu-
tionary history; the pre-Cambrian period with free-living, single-celled organisms (Tomescu et al. ).
Some microorganisms initially embraced living in isolation but gradually formed loose communities
or colonies as part of the evolutionary advantage to evolve as a reﬂection of the biological imperative
to survive. About 1.5 billion years ago, eukaryotic cells appeared apparently as symbiotic mergers of
previously independent organelles such as mitochondria, plastids, etc. with the prokaryotic cells (Knoll
et al. ). At later stages, sentient or proto-consciousness driven differentiation, organization and so-
cialization were some of the evolutionary advantages which expedited the evolutionary process in the
microbial world (Fabbro et al. ). Here, consciousness as proto-consciousness was the biggest driver
for intelligence observed in the microbial world which resulted in emergence of single-cellular and col-
lective intelligence. Therefore the emergence of primitive forms of consciousness was evident with the
rise in intelligent behaviour within the world of microbes that occupied a major portion of the Gaia’s
evolutionary history (Reddy and Pereira , Pereira ).
J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness S29
2. Evolution of conscious life and Subject–Object Model (SOM) of consciousness
From the time of inception of the science of consciousness there has been a lot of debate on conscious-
ness being a phenomenal property or epiphenomenal property. But for our present purpose we embrace
the latter possibility to understand the emergence and evolution of consciousness across wide living
spectra; from unicellular systems to a complex human system. While investigating the phenomenon of
consciousness in humans, it is inevitable for science to come across the question of the presence of
consciousness in other living systems. In case, if other living systems are confronted with conscious-
ness then how different is it to humans? Humans as a species occupying the premier position in the
evolutionary chart developed various advanced and complex mechanisms for functional and survival
purposes. Though most of the characteristics developed looks like survival tools, some have evolution-
ary advantages over the others. This is where the subjective aspect of consciousness comes into picture.
Since a human species involve an evolved biological system with consciousness in its most complex
form, it may not be the suitable subject for studying the evolution of consciousness. Hence, the easier
way would be to try and study simpler systems ﬁrst and then relate different aspects observed in those
systems to that of humans. But science has failed in recent times to understand consciousness in other
non-human systems because it set the criteria from human perspective of consciousness. This is where
the SOM of consciousness plays a role (Reddy ). It bases the level of consciousness of a living
system on the degree of subjectivity it would naturally develop driven by various parameters like the
morphological evolution and complexity etc. (Cleeremans , Zeman , Reddy , Reddy and
Pereira [52,60–63]). From this perspective, consciousness is an emergent property that is ubiquitous to
all the biological matter but to varying levels and degrees.
In general, the possibility of making a conscious choice could result from two different aspects; one
the physical structure (or the related processes) and the other, subjective experience of one’s existence
and happenings. If a system of physical structures is conscious of making choices then it gives edge
over errors while adapting to the environment and also during system malfunctioning. Development of
self-feeding mechanisms and emergency pathways increase the chances of survival, and any biological
structure having a few such characteristics can be treated as conscious in a sense. From this perspective,
system components with self-reﬂexive, self-feeding and self-organizing properties are conscious struc-
tures. Hence all biological structures that make up a functional system are conscious structures; because
they are aware of their own state of functioning and also can interact with surroundings and respond
accordingly. A conscious system on the other hand is a complex functional system developed by the or-
ganization of different conscious structures. For example, all the organelles inside the cell are conscious
structures, because they are conscious of their respective functions; and cell as a whole, on the other
hand is a conscious system. If the combination of different systems performing various functional tasks
is complex enough to host and support a higher order qualitative property like subjective awareness, then
a conscious choice of different quality emerges in a system. Any such system can be termed as conscious
being. This way consciousness appears as just a reﬂexive behaviour (Peters ) in simpler systems and
evolves to the state of subjective awareness in complex systems.
The extent of subjective aspect of consciousness developing in a system would in turn depend on
factors like the degrees of freedom in various informational pathways of the system, self-organizing
capacity associated with the complex pathways of the system (that would result in the lowest entropy),
self-sustaining and other self-feeding mechanisms and global communication network etc. (Edelman
and Tonon , Cleeremans , Greenﬁeld and Collins , Tononi , Hankey [28,29], Webb and
Graziano , Oizumi et al. , Tsuchiya et al. ). For example, with increased morphological
S30 J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness
complexity of the system, the heightened functioning is resultant of factors such as quickest feeding net-
works, minimal resistance in the wide global communication networking and maximum optimization of
functional pathways etc. Such necessity calls for the emergence of a higher order property in the system
which can subjectively monitor all these aspects. Consequently, the index for the proper functioning of
the system would be directly related to such qualitative property (Greenﬁeld and Collins , Tononi
). This theory explains how and why different living systems with varying complexity (morphologi-
cally and functionally) should have different levels and degrees of consciousness. This idea also justiﬁes
why lower forms of life are having a lower degrees of consciousness and the associated subtle experience
3. Emergence of proto-consciousness in the microbial world
The SOM of consciousness deﬁnes the progression and incorporation of consciousness from inani-
mate (physical and chemical) matter to animate (biological) matter with the development of structures
that support the underlying mechanism of conscious behaviour. This model also supports the Lamarckian
model of evolution – Theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics (Burkhardt ). The Orch-OR
theory penned by Hameroff and Penrose , claims that tubulin proteins of the cytoskeleton have the
possibility of evoking consciousness in the brain. Along with Bandyopadhyay coherence (BC) (Sahu
et al. [66,67]), Orch-OR theory provides a robust support for this progression, but it needs to be ex-
trapolated to be understood in primitive cytoskeletal structures. The evolution of the cytoskeleton and
appearance of microtubules in the evolving microorganisms therefore supports the underlying mech-
anisms of the evolving quantum consciousness within the microbial community of the pre-Cambrian
period (Hameroff ). According to the Orch-OR theory, quantum based consciousness is computed
in microtubules present in nerve cells but whether they emerge in all cells has yet to be proven. Here,
we hypothesis that quantum consciousness should originate within every cell of all unicellular and mul-
ticellular organisms, and therefore forms the support mechanism for important functions managed at a
cellular level such as cell proliferation and differentiation, apoptosis, DNA synthesis, RNA transcrip-
tion, protein expression, ATP synthesis and metabolic activity. Quantum consciousness enables a living
system to feel and understand its own existence based on the feedback resulting from different percep-
tive abilities, which also gives them a prospect to behave as per will (Pereira ). Hence, this form of
consciousness should be ubiquitous to all biological systems and forms the fundamental basis by which
they function, thrive and survive.
Evolutionary studies of the microbial world have been revealing an array of information which can be
utilized to understand how these microorganisms survive and secure themselves in their world. Search
for a common ancestor (LUCA – Last Universal Common Ancestor) still prevails but the use of phylo-
genetic relationships is helping us narrow down this search considerably (Glansdorff et al. , Boeck-
mann et al. ). As quoted above one possible advantage of consciousness for natural selection is the
ability to make choices (Stevens ). It is only through the consensual regularities of consciousness
and observed behaviours in various communities that we would come to know their world and discover
their natural abilities and characteristic features. Social behaviours observed in different families of mi-
croorganisms either fossilized or currently surviving species have also helped answer several questions
in relation to the possible emergence of conscious and intelligent decisions in the absence of neural sys-
tems. The evolution of the cytoskeleton within the classes of microorganisms is a key to understanding
the growing consciousness among these classes and can be understood by the behaviours observed within
J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness S31
these groups. As previously discussed, behaviour can act as a tool to quantify and understand the levels
of conscious life in these living systems. Hence, our present hypothesis is based on combination of the
SOM, the evolutionary traits of the cytoskeleton, conscious social behaviours in the microbial world and
the quantum mechanisms that supports the emergence of consciousness in the world of microorganisms.
In cells of all domains of life (archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes) a cytoskeleton is found which is composed
of similar proteins. However, the structure, function and dynamic behaviour of the cytoskeleton can be
very different, depending on organism and cell type (Wickstead and Gull ). The cytoskeleton; a key
structure supporting the Orch-OR theory, has always been considered as a unique feature to eukaryotes,
which changed with the discovery that bacteria too possess homologues of both tubulin (de Boer et al.
, RayChaudhuri and Park , Mukherjee et al. ) and actin (Bork et al. ). All tubulins are
known to have evolved from a common ancestor, which resembles the protein FtsZ (Erickson [14,15],
Pilhofer et al. ). The cytoskeleton as we know is composed of proteins that can form longitudinal
ﬁbres in all organisms made up of tubulin-like proteins; such as tubulin in eukaryotes and FtsZ, TubZ,
RepX in prokaryotes, and actin-like proteins; that are actin in eukaryotes and MreB, FtsA in prokaryotes,
and other intermediate ﬁlaments, found in eukaryotes; like lamins, keratins, vimentin, neuroﬁlaments,
desmin (Gunning et al. ).
Crenactin; an archaeal actin homologue, which is closely related to its eukaryotic form was discov-
ered in a Crenarcheaota Pyrobaculum calidifontis as helical structures that form the cytoskeleton in these
archaea bacteria involved in cytokinesis (Ettema et al. , Izore et al. ). FtsZ contains 4 main do-
mains and was observed in the crystal structure of FtsZ from archaea Methanococcus jannaschii (Lowe
and Amos ). Bacterial FtsZs are 40–50% identical in sequence even across very divergent species,
while archaeal FtsZs show a similar level of identity to each other and to bacterial FtsZs (Vaughan et al.
). For MreB and actin, bacterial MreBs are generally about 40% identical in sequence even across
diverse species; similar to FtsZ (Erickson ). Though FtsZ is a respective homolog of tubulin, the
evolutionary distance between the two proteins is substantial and hence it has been suggested that an
undiscovered species of bacteria or archaea could hold the evolutionary precursor of tubulin that could
determine the true evolution of this protein. FtsZ could therefore be considered as the precursor for quan-
tum computation resulting in the origination of quantum proto-consciousness (Barlow , Hameroff et
al. ). This idea is supported by several theoretical models and simulations which suggest that con-
formational states of tubulins within microtubular lattices are inﬂuenced by quantum events (Hameroff
and Watt , Tuszynski et al. , Pitkanen , Kukuljan , Faber et al. ). The presence of
a primitive form of cytoskeleton and other adaptable mechanisms in this group of microorganisms may
have been the inception of expression via quantum computed proto-consciousness. Quantum computa-
tion in these structures may seem possible because of the adaptive intelligence demonstrated by these
Archae were the ﬁrst organisms to demonstrate cooperative conscious behaviours in microbial mats
which originated during the environmental transition period from anaerobic to aerobic form; a beginning
of species diversity (Lyons and Kolter ). Adaptive behaviour is another form of social behaviour that
is used by these microbial systems to adjust to a situation (Staddon , Sieb ). Archaeal microor-
ganisms are ﬂagellated organisms, unlike the cyanobacteria and these structures are a well-built feature
used by these organisms to adapt and survive. Two archaeal systems, Methanocaldococcus jannaschii
and Methanocaldococcus villosus, were tested to be the fastest organisms in speed measured as bodies
per second (bps) based on their swimming potentials. These ﬂagellated archaeal organisms demonstrate
speeds at close to 400 and 500 bps which are high speeds when compared to a bacteria like E. coli or
a fast runnable animal such as cheetah; which moves at a speed of 20 bps (Herzog and Wirth ).
S32 J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness
Archaea is a highly conserved primitive group of bacteria which were earlier found only in extreme en-
vironments (DeLong , Nicks and Rahn-Lee ). They constitute primitive forms of extremophiles;
where each species develop certain characteristics (either physically or functionally) to thrive in extreme
environments (Stetter , Reed et al. ). For example, Haloquadratum walsbyi or ‘salt square’ be-
longs to the genus of the family Halobacteriaceae, which show box shaped structures, that give them a
higher advantage with survival due to increased surface area (Dyall-Smith et al. ) to maintain optimal
water activity within the cell and at cell surface (Bolhuis et al. ).
Since bacterial FtsZs show a similar level of identity to each other and to archaeal FtsZs (Vaughan
et al. ), it would be interesting to look at intelligent behaviours exhibited in by these organisms as
well. Bacterial intelligence is a form of minimal intelligence, which provides the bacterium the ability
to store, modify and execute adaptive processes by means of cooperative multicellular-type behaviours.
Conscious decisions help the bacteria to communicate and self-organize into colonies and ﬁlms which
form the basis of multicellular life. Jenkins and team isolated two tubulin-like genes (bacterial tubulin a
(BtubA) and bacterial tubulin b (BtubB)) from bacteria of the genus Prosthecobacter (Division Verru-
comicrobia). These Prosthecobacter tubulins were monomeric and unlike eukaryotic tubulins, but forms
dimmers (Jenkins et al. ). In contrast to all other prokaryotic tubulins, BtubA/BtubB can form tubules
by 5 proto ﬁlaments instead of 13, as observed in eukaryotes (Pilhofer et al. ) and there is enough
proof that both may have been acquired by horizontal gene transfer from eukaryotes conﬁrming that
the most likely ancestor of eukaryotic tubulins as of now remains to be FtsZ (Jékely ). Chemotaxis,
signal transduction and quorum sensing are some of the social and cooperative behaviours observed and
studied in bacteria which also resemble some of the most basic functions of the brain, such as sensory
integration, memory and decision making (Trewavas and Baluska ).
Microorganisms demonstrate the beginnings of primitive mental processes such as perception, learn-
ing and emotions where the organism is only aware of the environment and chooses ways to adapt
(Crespi ). This growth in complexity is clearly visible in the SOM that explains the growing mental
processes from primitive single celled organisms to complex multi-cellular organisms i.e. from cell to
neuron and the evolving cytoskeleton supporting complex quantum computations. Bio-ﬁlm formation
and quorum sensing have been justiﬁed as sensing capabilities and social recognition in bacteria which
are also observed in social insects e.g. ants, honey bees, etc (Gibbs et al. , Majumdar ). Bac-
terial bio-ﬁlms are structures created due to colonization, wherein the bacterium carries out its duties
in a cooperative manner by means of quorum sensing (Majumdar ). Bio-ﬁlms are also created for
shelter and procurement of food by means of cooperative behaviour such as foraging (Nadell et al. ).
Caulobacter crescentus is a ﬂagellated bacterium which uses its ﬂagella for swarming behaviour un-
der stress, attaches to a substrate and loses its ﬂagella to become a functional productive stalk, which
produces more swarmers as a means of survival (England and Gober ). Heterocyst like structures
have been found in fossil records which are 2 billion years old which suggests that this behaviour of
differentiation and division of labour existed in earlier prokaryotes (Zhang et al. ).
Therefore eukaryotic microorganisms demonstrate the presence of intelligence in its lowest form,
which has evolved to a higher state as a form of adaptation by means of cell division and cell differentia-
tion in higher organisms depicted by similarity in social behaviours (Marijuan et al. ). Slime moulds
or protists are the best examples that demonstrate behaviour similar to neurologically sophisticated or-
ganisms e.g. Physarum polycephalum (Latty and Beekman ). Physarum polycephalum is a protist
or slime mould which uses a spatial memory system to navigate through a food maze and is known to
ﬁnd the shortest path using its foraging techniques (Nakagaki et al. ). Amoeba has no structures for
reception of stimuli but the protoplasm responds to a stimulus, which gives it the ability to perceive and
J.S.K. Reddy and C. Pereira / Understanding the emergence of microbial consciousness S33
recognize its own kind and engage in cooperative behaviour. Volvox is a colonial ﬂagellate and shows
a transition between unicellular to multicellular form. The ﬂagellar movement of each of the cells in
the colony help in the movement of the whole colony which is a mutual colonized social behaviour
demonstrated by these organisms as a means of protection and movement towards light (Solari et al.
). Generation of a conscious moment in paramecia is depicted as a behavioural response to a stimu-
lus which helps the organism understand its surroundings (Jennings , Hameroff ). Anaesthetics
are known to act on microtubules, the cytoskeleton polymers of the protein tubulin inside brain neurons
and therefore affect consciousness and memory (Pan et al. ). Similarly anaesthetic effects were also
observed in cytoplasmic streaming inside slime moulds which wholly depends on the dynamics of the
cytoskeletal proteins (Perouansky , Craddock et al. ). Therefore evolution of the cytoskeleton is a
key step to propagation of consciousness which was more of a survival advantage which could provide
support in anticipating threats and strategic opportunities as key genes for the brain evolved much before
Sentience or conscious behaviour is prevalent in all three domains of the unicellular kingdom. Though
it is in lower degrees in comparison to the living systems that developed neural networks; by the division
of labour in cells it propagates and attains a higher state, as observed in higher organisms. Ancestral
precursors in the evolution of the cytoskeleton wherein, quantum coherence would have been an intrinsic
property of prokaryotic FtsZ and MreB, have helped propagate consciousness in primitive cells. The
growth in complexity of intelligence, cytoskeletal system and adaptive behaviours are key to evolution,
and thus supports the progression of the Lamarckian theory of evolution driven by quantum mediated
proto-consciousness to consciousness as described in the SOM of consciousness. In nature, new species
have arisen through variation and selection following the laws of nature with those varying in conformity
with the environment. In a cell or a group of cells e.g. a microbial mat or a developing embryo, the
cells always demonstrate an involuntary behaviour supported through genetic makeup which appears
as a reﬂex and may not be due to consciousness per se. But the reason to behave and adapt is the act
of learning which may originate through consciousness; for a cell needs to be aware for it to adapt
and perceive, and therefore even though perception and consciousness are two qualitatively distinct
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