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Forty years' experience as a bacterial geneticist has taught me that bacteria possess many cognitive, computational and evolutionary capabilities unimaginable in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Analysis of cellular processes such as metabolism, regulation of protein synthesis, and DNA repair established that bacteria continually monitor their external and internal environments and compute functional outputs based on information provided by their sensory apparatus. Studies of genetic recombination, lysogeny, antibiotic resistance and my own work on transposable elements revealed multiple widespread bacterial systems for mobilizing and engineering DNA molecules. Examination of colony development and organization led me to appreciate how extensive multicellular collaboration is among the majority of bacterial species. Contemporary research in many laboratories on cell-cell signaling, symbiosis and pathogenesis show that bacteria utilise sophisticated mechanisms for intercellular communication and even have the ability to commandeer the basic cell biology of 'higher' plants and animals to meet their own needs. This remarkable series of observations requires us to revise basic ideas about biological information processing and recognise that even the smallest cells are sentient beings.
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Bacteria are small but not stupid: cognition, natural genetic
engineering and socio-bacteriology
J.A. Shapiro
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Chicago, 929 E. 57th Street, Chicago IL 60637, USA
Forty years’ experience as a bacterial geneticist has taught me that bacteria possess many cognitive, computational and evolutionary
capabilities unimaginable in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Analysis of cellular processes such as metabolism, regulation of
protein synthesis, and DNA repair established that bacteria continually monitor their external and internal environments and compute
functional outputs based on information provided by their sensory apparatus. Studies of genetic recombination, lysogeny, antibiotic
resistance and my own work on transposable elements revealed multiple widespread bacterial systems for mobilizing and engineering
DNA molecules. Examination of colony development and organization led me to appreciate how extensive multicellular collaboration
is among the majority of bacterial species. Contemporary research in many laboratories on cell–cell signaling, symbiosis and pathogen-
esis show that bacteria utilise sophisticated mechanisms for intercellular communication and even have the ability to commandeer the
basic cell biology of ‘higher’ plants and animals to meet their own needs. This remarkable series of observations requires us to revise basic
ideas about biological information processing and recognise that even the smallest cells are sentient beings.
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Computation; Sensing; Regulation; Cybernetic; Evolution
When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
1. Introduction
The philosophy of microbiology is not well defined, at
least for practicing microbiologists like me. If we think
about it, I suppose most microbiologists see microorgan-
isms as constituting a special branch of living organisms.
Some, like myself, appreciate microbial virtuosity and
emphasize the essential role microorganisms play in main-
taining the biosphere and carrying out the bulk of energetic
and geochemical transformations on the planet (Lovelock
& Margulis, 1974; Lenton & van Oijen, 2002). Others fol-
low conventional wisdom and think of microbes as ‘lower’
forms of life, simpler and less capable than eukaryotes
because of their smaller size and apparent lack of internal
cellular structure. The conventional wisdom is an extension
of the mechanistic views that came to dominate biological
thought in the early years of the twentieth century. The
idea is that microbes, particularly prokaryotes, exemplify
the basic properties of living cells reduced to their simplest
configurations. The goal of researchers who subscribe to
this view is to find or construct the minimal living organism
(Luisi et al., 2006).
Molecular biology came into being on the promise of
confirming mechanistic views of life by defining how living
cells worked at a physico-chemical level (Judson, 1979).
Ironically, molecular biology has uncovered a vast realm
1369-8486/$ - see front matter 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819
Studies in History
and Philosophy of
Biological and
Biomedical Sciences
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of complex intracellular machinery, signal transduction,
regulatory networks and sophisticated control processes
that were unanticipated in the early days of this new
approach to life (Alberts et al., 2002). Increasingly, compu-
tational rather than mechanical models are invoked to
account for the operation of subcellular systems, the cell
cycle, cellular differentiation, and the development of mul-
ticellular organisms (Bray, 1990, 1995; Gearhart & Kirsch-
ener, 1997).
My own view is that we are witnessing a major paradigm
shift in the life sciences in the sense that Kuhn (1962)
described that process. Matter, the focus of classical molec-
ular biology, is giving way to information as the essential
feature used to understand how living systems work. Infor-
matics rather than mechanics is now the key to explaining
cell biology and cell activities. The traditional mechanistic
view held that the structure of biological molecules deter-
mines the actions of cells in some kind of linear fashion.
But today we know that biological molecules change their
structures as they interact with other molecules and that
these structural changes contain information about the
external environment and conditions within the cell. As
illustrated below, we have abundant results showing that
what a cell does is a function of the information it has
about itself and its surroundings (i.e. about past molecular
interactions). Much contemporary research aims to under-
stand how cellular processes are controlled adaptively to
guarantee survival and reproduction in response to the
millions of molecular events that occur in each cell cycle.
This informatic approach is richer than a mechanistic one
because it allows us to discuss complex, non-linear,
goal-oriented processes with all kinds of feedbacks and
decision points. (See O’Malley & Dupre
´, this section, for
further discussion about the inadequacy of mechanistic
Bacteria are full participants in this biological paradigm
shift, and the recognition of sophisticated information pro-
cessing capacities in prokaryotic cells represents another
step away from the anthropocentric view of the universe
that dominated pre-scientific thinking. Not only are we
no longer at the physical center of the universe; our status
as the only sentient beings on the planet is dissolving as we
learn more about how smart even the smallest living cells
can be.
2. Personal history: transposable elements, adaptive
mutation and bacterial colony development
It is impossible to explain a scientific viewpoint without
incorporating the personal history of observations and
ideas that leads to a particular way of thinking. So I hope
the readers of this symposium will indulge me in a short
autobiographical sketch of my career as bacterial geneticist
and microbiologist.
In the fall of 1964, I arrived in Cambridge, England,
with a Marshall Scholarship from HM Government
intending to read Part II Biochemistry and then return to
the US to study medicine. I had just graduated college with
a B.A. in English Literature and felt that I needed more
exposure to biology than I received in the minimal pre-
med courses I had taken. However, the Part II Biochemis-
try course was full that year, and I ended up doing research
in the Genetics Department on mutation in bacteria. My
research topic led me to get advice and strains from Sydney
Brenner at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Labora-
tory of Molecular Biology. These contacts introduced me
to the challenging and exciting world of molecular genetics,
then focused primarily on prokaryotic systems. Later, to
complete my Doctoral research, I moved to the MRC
Microbial Genetics Research Unit (MGRU), headed by
Bill Hayes at Hammersmith Hospital in London.
The mid 1960s were a heady time of revolutionary dis-
coveries about basic cellular processes defined in molecular
terms. The black box of prokaryotic cell biology had
opened, and the scientific community was defining the
components of systems underlying metabolism, protein
synthesis, DNA replication and DNA transfer. Of particu-
lar importance to me were three topics related to my
research and that of my lab mates. The review summarizing
regulation of the lac operon by Jacob and Monod (1961)
had recently been published, defining a whole new class
of genomic elements: cis-acting sites recognized by proteins
regulating transcription. Allan Campbell (1962) had just
proposed his model for insertion and excision of phage
lambda DNA in and out of the bacterial genome, and
research was beginning to extend the ‘Campbell Model’
by identifying the special sites and proteins that carry out
this particular case of what was then called illegitimate
recombination. Finally, Naomi Datta and Elinor Meynell
at MGRU were extending the work of Tsutomu Watanabe
(1963) by examining the plasmids that encoded the resis-
tances bacteria had evolved to counter widespread antibi-
otic chemotherapy (Meynell & Datta, 1967). The
bacterial genetics all around me had little to do with the
classical genetics developed in the first half of the twentieth
century, before we knew about DNA, or before many peo-
ple believed that bacteria had any genetics at all.
My own Ph.D. research ended up focusing on some
unusual mutations that I mapped and characterized in
the E. coli gal operon (Adhya & Shapiro, 1969; Shapiro
& Adhya, 1969). These mutations were located in coding
regions, blocked expression of downstream cistrons,
mapped like point mutations, and reverted spontaneously.
In all these properties, they resembled certain polar base-
change mutations of the lac operon (Newton et al.,
1965), but my mutations could not be induced to revert
at higher frequencies by base-substitution or frameshift
mutagens. Instead of being point mutations or deletions,
I hypothesized in my thesis that they resulted from inser-
tion of additional DNA into the operon (Shapiro, 1968).
I was able to confirm this hypothesis during my postdoc-
toral year at the Institute Pasteur by density gradient anal-
ysis of wild type and mutant operons cloned in lambda-gal
particles (Shapiro, 1969; see Cohen & Shapiro, 1980, for a
808 J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819
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non-technical summary). Later analysis showed that the
same pieces of DNA inserted into other E. coli operons
and identified them as transposable ‘insertion sequences’,
or IS elements (Mahillon & Chandler, 1998).
At the tender age of twenty-five, I had encountered
transposable elements for the first time. Such mobile ele-
ments had no place in conventional Mendelian genetics.
But it quickly became apparent at a meeting I organized
with Ahmed Bukhari and Sankhar Adhya at Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratory in May of 1976, that transposable
and other mobile genetic elements were virtually ubiqui-
tous in prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes (Bukhari,
Shapiro & Adhya, 1977). At that meeting, I initiated two
friendships which greatly influenced my thinking. One of
these was with Arianne Toussaint and Michel Faelen from
the Free University of Brussels, who studied DNA rear-
rangements mediated by bacteriophage Mu, a virus that
uses transposition to replicate its genome (Toussaint
et al., 1994). Thinking about Mu helped me work out
one of several related transposition mechanisms used by
bacterial transposons (Shapiro, 1979). The profound differ-
ences and the profound similarities between the insertion
mechanisms of Lambda and Mu taught me that organized
protein–DNA complexes can carry out virtually any gen-
ome restructuring process compatible with the physical
chemistry of DNA molecules. The real world significance
of this lesson has been abundantly confirmed over the years
in systems ranging from bacterial plasmid and chromo-
some evolution to the mammalian immune system (Craig
et al., 2002). Surprises about the versatility of DNA rear-
rangement mechanisms still keep appearing (MacDonald
et al., 2006).
The second friendship initiated at that 1976 Cold Spring
Harbor meeting was with Barbara McClintock, who had
discovered transposable elements three decades earlier
through rigorous cytogenetic analysis of maize plants
(McClintock, 1987). Educated at the start of the twentieth
century, when genetic concepts were still in the formative
stage, Barbara was a pioneering cytogeneticist with an
organic view of genome operations and a fierce indepen-
dence of thought. She preferred to believe what her maize
plants taught her rather than what her colleagues told
her should be so. Somehow, I had the good sense to realize
that Barbara was a rare master scientist who had much wis-
dom to communicate. So I spent over a decade in visits and
long telephone calls trying to learn what ideas she had dis-
tilled from her research and extensive knowledge of the
natural world.
One of Barbara’s key insights is that living cells have the
systems in place to repair and restructure their genomes.
This insight fit perfectly with my own studies of transposi-
tion mechanisms as well as with my experience doing
in vivo cloning of the E. coli lac operon in lambda phages
when I was a postdoc in Jon Beckwith’s laboratory (Shap-
iro et al., 1969). In a review published shortly before Bar-
bara’s death, I placed all these restructuring processes
under the rubric ‘natural genetic engineering’ (Shapiro,
1992a), a name that incorporates the sense of purposeful
action by cells under challenge that she described in her
Nobel Prize address (McClintock, 1984). The idea of natu-
ral genetic engineering is controversial to some because it
implies the existence of an engineer to decide when restruc-
turing should occur. (Indeed, one journal editor would not
publish a paper of mine earlier this year because I insisted
on using the phrase). But natural genetic engineering fits
very well with a more contemporary view of cells as cogni-
tive entities acting in response to sensory inputs.
I was fortunate a few years later when my fascination
with phage Mu led me to demonstrate DNA restructuring
in response to physiological stress. My colleague Malcolm
Casadaban had developed a technique using Mu to gener-
ate hybrid fusion proteins in vivo (Casadaban, 1976), and
my former Ph.D. student, Spencer Benson, piqued my
interest in the fusion process when he told me it required
thick agar plates because the fusion colonies only appeared
after long periods of incubation. After failing to persuade
Spencer to study this phenomenon, I undertook the subject
myself and quickly found evidence that selection on the
appropriate growth medium triggers a frequent Mu-depen-
dent fusion process (found in over one in every 10
which was undetectable during normal growth (found in
fewer than one in every 10
cells; Shapiro, 1984a). This
was the first example of the phenomenon later called ‘adap-
tive’ or ‘stress-induced’ mutation (Shapiro, 1997; Rosen-
berg, 2001). Further research with Genevieve Maenhaut-
Michel, David Leach and colleagues from the Brussels
Mu group confirmed the role of Mu transposition func-
tions in forming hybrid proteins, allowed us to formulate
a molecular model, and demonstrated that aerobic carbo-
hydrate starvation stimulated regulatory proteins to acti-
vate the fusion process (Maenhaut-Michel & Shapiro,
1994; Shapiro, 1997; Lamrani et al., 1999). The older I
became, the more my experiences with genetic change in
bacteria deviated from the conventional wisdom. Fortu-
nately, my results fit with precedents from plant genetics,
where researchers had documented that various stresses
also activate transposable elements (McClintock, 1984,
1987; Wessler, 1996).
While I was studying the formation of protein fusions, I
recorded the daily appearance of colonies photographi-
cally. After learning about a new high resolution film, I
also happened to take photos of sectored colonies made
with one of Casadaban’s other Mu derivatives for in vivo
genetic engineering. When I developed the prints, I saw
that every colony was organized like a flower and displayed
many patterns like those that McClintock had observed in
her maize kernels (Shapiro, 1984b, c, 1992c; see Fig. 1). Pat
Higgins and I subsequently found that some of these pat-
terns resulted from differential activation of Mu transposi-
tion/replication functions (Shapiro & Higgins, 1989).
Suddenly, the differences between maize plants and bacte-
rial colonies were dissolving, and it became apparent to
me that bacterial colonies could also be viewed as multicel-
lular organisms (Shapiro, 1988).
J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819 809
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My own work with bacterial colonies concentrated on
documenting patterns and developmental events involving
cell differentiation and cell–cell interaction. One could see
with the scanning electron microscope that E. coli cells
change considerably with respect to size, shape, and how
they arrange themselves in local populations during the
course of colony morphogenesis (Shapiro, 1987). By light
microscopy, it was possible to visualize cell–cell interac-
tions showing that E. coli grow on agar surfaces by maxi-
mizing contact between cells rather than individual access
to substrate (Shapiro & Hsu, 1989). Despite dense popula-
tions, E. coli divide just as rapidly on agar as they do in
well aerated suspension cultures (Shapiro, 1992b). Evi-
dently, these bacteria had evolved to grow in a group envi-
ronment, not as isolated individuals (i.e. ‘single cell
organisms’), and they had acquired the capacity to form
organized groups of differentiated cells.
A related species of enteric bacteria, Proteus mirabilis,
attracted my attention because it is famous for collective
movement over agar surfaces, known as swarming. Studies
with Proteus indicated that overall colony patterns (see
Fig. 2) reflect the operation of highly regular systems for
cell differentiation and motility (Rauprich et al., 1996;
Esipov & Shapiro, 1998). It is important to note that the
strikingly symmetrical colony structure apparently does
not have any intrinsic functionality. Swarming motility is
Fig. 1. Two adjacent E. coli colonies growing on medium where expression of a particular protein leads to deposition of blue dye. Note the rings and
sectors (wedges) where expression differs.
810 J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819
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adaptive howeverer, because it gives the bacteria access to
additional nutrients. In other words, seeing pattern and
organization in bacterial colonies tells us that bacteria
engage in regulated, coordinated behaviors, even when
the biological utility of group activity may be something
quite different from colony morphogenesis.
As I was pursuing my studies of bacterial multicellular-
ity, I had the good fortune to make another important
friend: Martin Dworkin from the University of Minnesota.
Marty is the microbiologist who tamed Myxococcus xan-
thus so that it could be studied in the laboratory (Dworkin,
1962). The Myxobacteria engage in group predation-hunt-
ing in packs and lysing prey microorganisms-and they pro-
duce such elaborate multicellular fruiting bodies when they
sporulate that they were originally classified as fungi
(Dworkin, 2000; Kaiser, 1993). In 1983, Marty published
one of the great unheralded papers in microbiology, where
he demonstrated that packs of M. xanthus cells could
detect and migrate towards chemically inert beads (Dwor-
kin, 1983). In the 1990s, Marty and I organized a couple of
meetings at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on
bacterial multicellularity and in 1997, we published the first
book on Bacteria as multicellular organisms (Shapiro &
Dworkin, 1997). This organizing and editorial work
Fig. 2. Intersecting swarm colonies of Proteus mirabilis. The three spots show where the bacteria were inoculated at the start of growth (a different time for
each spot). The terraces show the results of periodic spreading over the medium. The fact that the terraces do not merge when they touch indicates that
periodicity results from processes internal to each colony.
J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819 811
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exposed me to multiple examples of ‘sociobacteriology’ and
taught me to appreciate bacterial multicellularity in natural
3. Bacterial cognition in cybernetics and nanofabrication
In drawing general conclusions, it is always necessary to
ask yourself whether your own experience is somehow
exceptional and/or biased. When I began my research on
transposable elements, adaptive mutation, and bacterial
colonies, many of my colleagues felt that these topics were
deviations from basic microbiological phenomena. Over
time, however, the ubiquity and importance of natural
genetic engineering and multicellular behavior of bacteria
have become widely apparent. Many other microbiologists
have documented the unexpected capacities bacteria dis-
play for control of their genomes and for meaningful inter-
cellular communication. So let us review some of the
observations that fit into a new, more cognitive mode of
scientific thinking about bacteria and other living cells.
Here the term cognitive refers to processes of acquiring
and organizing sensory inputs so that they can serve as
guides to successful action. The cognitive approach empha-
sizes the role of information gathering in regulating cellular
function. Discussion of a few examples will show in detail
how this perspective applies to bacterial function.
The first point is to recognize that bacteria are far more
sophisticated than human beings at controlling complex
operations. The fast growing bacterial cell is the ultimate
just-in-time production facility. When an E. coli cell divides
every twenty minutes, exquisitely reliable coordination has
been achieved for hundreds of millions of biochemical reac-
tions and biomechanical events. E. coli cells replicate their
DNA at almost 4000 base pairs per second, but have an
error frequency of far less than one nucleotide misincorpo-
ration per every genome duplication (i.e. 2 ·4.6 million base
pairs are duplicated every forty minutes; Cooper & Helm-
stetter, 1968;
This incredible precision is accomplished not by rigid
mechanical precision but rather by using two layers of
expert error monitoring and correction systems: (1) exonu-
clease proofreading in the polymerase itself, which catches
and corrects over 99.9% of all mistakes as soon as they are
made (Kunkel & Bebenek, 2000), and (2) the methyl-direc-
ted mismatch repair (MMR) system, which subsequently
detects and fixes over 99% of any errors that escaped the
exonuclease (Modrich, 1991). Together, this multilayered
proofreading system boosts the 99.999% precision of the
polymerase to over 99.99999999%. At both stages of the
error correction process, detailed molecular analysis has
clarified the distinct roles of sensory and repair components.
In the case of the MMR system, the sophistication is even
more impressive because the molecules discriminate newly
replicated from old DNA so that they only correct the newly
synthesized strand (Radman & Wagner, 1988).
The combination of cognition (error detection) and
response (error correction) exemplified by DNA replication
proofreading is paradigmatic for a wide variety of bacterial
processes. Bacteria constantly pick up information from
inside and outside the cell and function adaptively, based
on what they have sensed. Another key example dates back
to pre-molecular days, when Jacques Monod (1942) dem-
onstrated that E. coli can discriminate between the sugars
glucose and lactose. The molecular biology underlying this
discrimination is now well known and serves as the basis
for understanding how cells express genomic protein cod-
ing information. Although lactose metabolism is generally
described within a mechanical context, it is more useful
today to take a computational and cognitive perspective
(see Table 1;Shapiro, 2002b). Among E. coli’s interactions
with the two sugars, there are several cognitive steps: the
LacY and LacZ proteins act as lactose sensors; LacI acts
as a sensor for the sugar allolactose (i.e. processed lactose);
membrane transport protein IIA
acts as an external glu-
cose sensor; and the Crp protein acts as a sensor for cAMP
second messenger molecules. The information from all
these sensors feeds into a computational network that
includes the lac operon regulatory signals so that the cell
can compute the following non-trivial Boolean proposi-
tion: ‘IF lactose present AND glucose NOT present
AND cell can synthesize active LacZ and LacY, THEN
transcribe lacZYA from lacP’. Here, the term compute
applies to the evaluation of sensory inputs about glucose
and lactose to direct action by the cellular transcription
apparatus. Although there is no sharp dividing line
between cellular cognition and computation, the first term
applies mostly to upstream sensory operations and the sec-
ond chiefly to functional decisions based on cognitive
Once properly oriented in our thinking, we can find cog-
nitive and computational phenomena in many of the classic
bacterial systems subject to molecular scrutiny. For exam-
ple, it has long been customary to draw comparisons
between bacterial chemotaxis and the operation of a neuro-
sensory system (Adler, 1966; Koshland, 1980), and the che-
motaxis control circuit serves as a paradigm of biological
computing (Bray et al., 1993). Through interlocking cyto-
plasmic feedback loops and receptor interactions in the cell
membrane, E. coli chemotaxis achieves remarkable func-
tional bandwith; the system is able to guide bacterial
swarming over chemical concentration gradients of more
than six orders of magnitude (Bray, 2002). Bacteria use
chemotaxis to find nutrients, avoid toxic chemicals, sense
pH, and interact with host organisms in symbiosis and
pathogenesis. So there can be little question about the func-
tionality and adaptiveness of this cognitive system. Simi-
larly, cognition and information processing play essential
roles in damage and accident repair. In the SOS response
to DNA damage or replication fork failure, the RecA pro-
tein functions as a sensory microprocessor. RecA monitors
the accumulation of single stranded DNA and derepress-
es expression of SOS repair functions in response to
such accumulation (Witkin, 1991; Sutton et al., 2000).
Once the SOS system has been activated, sensory and
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information-processing routines (now called checkpoints)
come into play to make sure that cell division and DNA
replication do not resume until genomic damage has been
repaired (Weinert & Hartwell, 1993).
More intricate kinds of sensing occur in the biogenesis
(nanofabrication) of complex structures, such as the helical
flagella that propel bacteria as they swim through fluid
environments. There are dedicated proteins that ‘usher’
components of each new flagellum in a properly unfolded
state for transport to the external tip of the growing struc-
ture, where the components are incorporated and extend
the helical filament. When flagellar biogenesis is complete,
the ushers can no longer deliver the components, so they
convert themselves into transcriptional repressors to shut
down synthesis of the now superfluous polypeptides (Ald-
ridge & Hughes, 2002). The bacterial cell uses the multi-
functional usher/repressor proteins to sense the
completion of a morphogenetic process and integrate it
with genome expression. Note here, as in the case of lac
regulation (Table 1), how operational molecules (ushers,
transporters, enzymes) have informatic roles as well. There
is no Cartesian dualism in an E. coli cell.
4. Bacteria as natural genetic engineers
The first focus of my dialogue with bacteria was the
study of mutation in the gal operon, to inquire how
E. coli cells change their genomes. Their basic response
to my inquiry can be summarized as: ‘Look at how we
can move DNA around.’ I was far from the only microbi-
ologist to receive this message. Molecular genetics began
with the study of transformation in gram-positive bacte-
ria—the ability of bacterial cells to incorporate informa-
tion from exogenous DNA—and this was where we first
learned about DNA as hereditary material (Avery et al.,
1944). My thesis advisor, Bill Hayes, established his repu-
tation by showing how autonomous plasmids can promote
DNA transfer between bacterial cells (see Hayes, 1968).
Joshua Lederberg’s students, Norton Zinder and Larry
Morse, showed that bacterial viruses could carry genetic
information from one cell to another and sometimes even
clone pieces of the bacterial chromosome (ibid.). As an
illustration of how well integrated these DNA transfer sys-
tems are into bacterial life cycles, a recent paper demon-
strates that the competence (DNA uptake) system of V.
cholerae is activated by exposure to chitin, the material
composing crustacean exoskeletons, where Vibrio biofilms
grow during the marine phase of this organims’s life-cycle
(Meibom et al., 2005).
Nowhere has bacterial virtuosity in manipulating DNA
molecules been more apparent than in the response to the
onslaught of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture after
World War II. This episode constitutes the most thor-
oughly documented case of evolutionary change known
to us. When antibiotic chemotherapy began on a large
scale, there was a well established theory of how bacteria
could evolve resistance: mutations would change cell struc-
tures so the cells were no longer sensitive to antibiotic
action or so the antibiotic could not enter the cell to reach
its target. Even though a single mutation might confer only
partial resistance, successive mutations would confer ever
higher levels. For the philosophers of science, it is impor-
tant to remember that this theory was abundantly con-
firmed by laboratory experiments (summarized in Hayes,
1968). Nonetheless, this experimentally confirmed theory
was wrong for the vast majority of antibiotic resistant bac-
teria found in hospitals around the world.
Naturally acquired antibiotic resistance is generally due
to the expression of new functions for inactivating antibiot-
ics or for pumping them out of the cell (Foster, 1983).
Sometimes, the resistance mechanism involves chemical
modification of a cellular antibiotic target so that it is
Table 1
Molecular processes in lac operon regulation as Boolean statements (Shapiro, 2002a)
Operations involving lac operon products:
LacY + lactose(external) )lactose(internal) (1)
LacZ + lactose )allolactose (minor product) (2)
LacI + lacO )LacI-lacO (repressor bound, lacP inaccessible) (3)
LacI + allolactose )LacI-allolactose (repressor unbound, lacP accessible) (4)
Operations involving glucose transport components and adenylate cyclase:
-P + glucose(external) )IIA
+ glucose-6-P(internal) (5)
-P + adenylate cyclase(inactive) )adenylate cylase(active) (6)
Adenylate cyclase(active) + ATP )cAMP + P P (7)
Operations involving transcription factors:
Crp + cAMP )Crp-cAMP (8)
Crp-cAMP + CRP )Crp-cAMP-CRP (9)
RNA Pol + lacP )unstable complex (10)
RNA Pol + lacP + Crp-cAMP-CRP )stable transcription complex (11)
Partial computations:
No lactose )lacP inaccessible (3)
Lactose + LacZ(basal) + LacY(basal) )lacP accessible (1, 2, 4)
Glucose )low IIA
-P )low cAMP )unstable transcription complex (5, 6, 7, 10)
No glucose )high IIA
-P )high cAMP )stable transcription complex (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11)
J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819 813
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rendered insensitive. In the vast majority of cases, resis-
tance arose from acquisition of additional functions by
the bacteria, and these functionalities were encoded by
plasmids, phages and transposable elements, often includ-
ing the kind of IS elements I discovered in the gal operon
(Watanabe, 1963; Bukhari et al., 1977; Shapiro, 1983;
Craig et al., 2002). There can be no doubt that bacteria
received evolutionary benefits by having mobile pieces of
DNA in their genomes and systems for transferring DNA
from cell to cell.
With complete genome sequencing, our appreciation of
the role of natural genetic engineering in bacterial evolu-
tion has grown tremendously. We know that operons
encoding multiple antibiotic resistances are built up by
lambda-like integration systems called integrons (Hall &
Collis, 1995). Integrons expand and contract by the inser-
tion and excision of single protein coding sequence cas-
settes. Integrons are not limited to antibiotic resistance
determinants. A large ‘super-integron’ encoding pathoge-
nicity determinants was discovered in the genome of Vibrio
cholerae (Mazel et al., 1998), and diverse bacteria have
integrons or sequences for the integrase protein that medi-
ates cassette insertion and excision (Holmes et al., 2003).
The functional significance of the cassettes in these novel
integrons is not known, but less than 5% show similarity
to antibiotic resistance functions (ibid.).
A related characteristic of bacterial genomes is the pres-
ence of large DNA segments that extend tens of kilobases
and are clearly distinct from the surrounding genomic
DNA in base composition. These segments have been most
intensively studied in disease organisms, where they con-
tain coding sequences for virulence functions and are thus
called pathogenicity islands (Dobrindt et al., 2004). The
base composition differences with the rest of the chromo-
some indicate that these islands have been imported from
other species. In addition to pathogenesis, islands have
been described encoding adaptive functions as diverse as
magnetotaxis, symbiosis, exoenzyme production, xenobi-
otic degradation, and toxicity to insects (Dobrindt et al.,
2004; Ullrich et al., 2005). Pathogenicity islands and the
magnetosome island apparently are products of the kinds
of natural genetic engineering studied in the laboratory
(Osborne & Boltner, 2002). Some are flanked by IS ele-
ments, some encode integron-like integrases, and others
show signs of resulting from bacteriophage-like site-specific
integration events. The magnetosome island is rich in IS
elements and suffers frequent stress induced deletions by
IS activity (Ullrich et al., 2005).
Genomic data reveal that bacteria can use natural
genetic engineering systems to acquire large segments of
DNA encoding complex adaptive functions from other
species. This is basically a more detailed version of Sonea
and Panisset’s idea that there is one large distributed bac-
terial genome, from which genomes adapted to particular
niches assemble by transfer and integration of DNA seg-
ments from different cells into one particular cell type
(Sonea & Panisset, 1983; Sonea & Mathieu, 2001).
To fill out our picture of bacteria as sophisticated natu-
ral genetic engineers, we should note how often these small
cells use DNA rearrangements to regulate protein synthesis
or to manipulate the structure of the proteins they produce.
Table 2 indicates some well studied cases. Interestingly,
these examples all involve external proteins where struc-
tural changes are important to avoid immune recognition,
to change surface attachment properties, or to permit inter-
actions with different cell types. It is also noteworthy that
bacterial DNA restructuring and protein engineering
involve two features often thought to be limited to ‘higher’
organisms: repeat DNA sequences (Shapiro, 2002c) and
reverse transcription (Doulatov et al., 2004).
The realization that most DNA changes in bacteria (and
eukaryotes too) occur by the action of natural genetic engi-
neering systems removes the source of variation in the gen-
ome from the category of stochastic events or
unpredictable accidents, and places it in the context of cel-
lular biochemistry. This reclassification has major concep-
tual consequences because cellular biochemistry is subject
to regulation and operates in predictable ways. Regulation
means that DNA changes are non-random with respect to
time, physiology and life history. My own encounter with
this reality involved the activation of Mu-dependent
fusions (Shapiro, 1984). Other bacterial geneticists have
documented stress induced mutagenesis involving point
mutations (Rosenberg, 2001) as well as transposable ele-
ments (Hall, 1998, 1999; Ilves et al., 2001; Ho
˜rak et al.,
2004). Bacteria certainly can use their cognitive capacities
to activate DNA change when it can be useful in overcom-
ing selective challenges.
The structural predictability of biochemical processes is
a further source of genomic non-randomness in DNA
change. Transposases, recombinases and nucleases all have
sequence recognition specificities, and there is even a well
documented example of reverse splicing in bacteria guided
by RNA:DNA sequence recognition (Mohr et al., 2000).
Thus, the DNA segments that move through the genome,
the places they move, and the sequences they rearrange
can have both flexibility and predictability. Ironically, we
often understand more about this predictability in eukary-
otes than we do in bacteria (Shapiro, 2005). Although we
remain ignorant about the full extent of connections
between cognitive inputs and evolutionary DNA rear-
rangements in bacteria, we now can begin to explore this
hitherto taboo subject in precise molecular terms.
Table 2
DNA rearrangements controlling protein synthesis and protein structure
in bacteria
1) flagellar phase variation in Salmonella (Zieg at el., 1977)
2) fimbrial phase variation in E. coli (Blomfield, 2001)
3) Borrelia VSG expression (Barbour et al., 2000)
4) R64 plasmid sex pilus structure changes (Gyohda et al., 2004)
5) Neisseria pilus and opacity protein changes (Saunders et al., 2000)
6) Bordetella reverse transcriptase (Doulatov et al., 2004)
814 J. A. Shapiro / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 807–819
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5. Bacteria as masters of cell–cell interactions
When a discovery such as natural genetic engineering
leads us to ask basic conceptual questions that were once
inadmissible, it takes time for the new perspective to be
widely accepted. However, genome sequencing indicates
that the ability of bacteria to carry out sophisticated
DNA engineering is likely to prove a minor surprise. Other
well documented phenomena imply even greater abilities
that bacteria use to reorganize themselves in evolution.
Genome sequencing results have clearly established bacte-
rial endosymbiosis as a major aspect of evolution (see
Sapp, this issue). The descent of mitochondria from alpha
proteobacteria and of chloroplasts from cyanobacteria is
generally accepted (Gray, 1999). Less widely known are
sequence data supporting at least two other major symbi-
otic events in the history of life as we know it: (1) the gen-
eration of Gram-negative bacteria from symbiosis between
an archaea and a Gram-positive bacterium (Gupta, 1998,
2000); and (2) the generation of the first eukaryotic cell
from symbiosis between an archaea and a Gram-negative
bacterium (Gupta, 2000; Rivera & Lake, 2004; Horiike
et al., 2001, 2004; Embley & Martin, 2006). If we think
about how these important events might have occurred at
the molecular level, we have to recognize the tremendous
challenges presented by the need to integrate separate gen-
omes, metabolisms, envelopes and external structures into
a viable cell. Orchestrating all the required molecular pro-
cesses makes DNA restructuring look simple in
Symbiosis demands an ability to coordinate processes in
distinct cell types. In recent years, we have begun to learn
about one aspect of cellular coordination: how bacteria
carry out intercellular communication. The lessons provide
us with conceptual tools that expand our ideas about inter-
cellular and multicellular information processing. The first
of these tools is the ability to think functionally about bac-
terial activity at the population rather than the single cell
level. My introduction to this perspective was recognizing
organized patterns of differential action in colonies (Shap-
iro, 1984b, c). A related major focus of contemporary bac-
terial studies is the actions of biofilms, which are thin
colonies spread over a surface (Stoodley et al., 2002; Webb
et al., 2003; Parsek & Fuqua, 2004; Branda et al., 2005). It
is now widely recognized that multicellularity provides
important advantages for pathogens in initial colonization
and protection against host defenses (Costerton et al.,
1999; Davies, 2003). Biofilms, colonies and aggregates are
also important in environmental and industrial microbiol-
ogy. Many bio(geo)chemical transformations can only be
carried out by consortia that couple energetically feeble,
single cell processes into thermodynamically robust
changes with large overall drops in free energy. Examples
include anaerobic transformations in bioreactors, degrada-
tion of xenobiotics, and redox coupling of organisms iso-
lated in culture as inseparable multispecies consortia
(Schink, 2002; Hoffmeister & Martin, 2003; Spiegelman
et al., 2005). It has been proposed that just this kind of met-
abolic consortium was the progenitor of the first eukaryotic
cells (Margulis et al., 2000).
A particular role for intercellular communication occurs
in cellular differentiation during bacterial spore formation.
The two key laboratory species for studying sporulation
are Myxococcus xanthus and Bacillus subtilis. Social behav-
ior has long been considered an exceptional specialization
of the myxobacteria, while B. subtilis has been considered
a prototype of the single cell organism. Consequently, B.
subtilis sporulation has traditionally been studied as an
autonomous single cell event. That unicellular focus chan-
ged however, with the identification of two separate extra-
cellular signals needed to initiate sporulation (Grossman &
Losick, 1988) and the discovery that wild type B. subtilis
colonies contain morphologically distinct fruiting bodies
where sporulation occurs (Branda et al., 2001). In addition
to intercellular communication at the start of B. subtilis
sporulation, another signaling system was discovered that
controls programmed cell death of non-sporulating cells
in the fruiting body at a later stage of the process (Gonz-
alez-Pastor et al., 2003). Analysis of sporulation-related
signaling has revealed interlocking inter- and intracellular
networks. These networks integrate cognitive inputs about
external conditions, population structure and internal cell
physiology so that cells may properly make the irreversible
decision to undergo sporulation (Lazzazera & Grossman,
Identifying intercellular signaling molecules has recently
become a minor growth industry among microbiologists.
Many of the molecules are labeled quorum sensors, based
on the idea that they serve as population density monitors,
and it is commonly believed that recognition of quorum
sensing began in the 1980s (Fuqua et al., 1994). However,
our knowledge of the role of intercellular population sig-
nals actually dates back to the 1960s and studies of extra-
cellular ‘competence factors’ needed for bacteria to
develop the ability to take up exogenous DNA in genetic
transformation (Pakula & Walczak, 1963). The fact that
intercellular signaling was not recognized as a basic bacte-
rial trait says more about our intellectual prejudices than
about the status of experimental results. The nature of
chemically characterised signaling molecules ranges from
oligopeptides, proteins, amino acids, liposaccharides and
fatty acids to aminoglycosides, acyl homoserine lactones
and furanosyl borate diester. These chemically diverse sig-
nals affect properties as different as antibiotic production,
exoenzyme synthesis, bioluminescence, symbiotic root nod-
ulation, virulence, and group motility in addition to com-
petence and sporulation (Shapiro, 1998; Waters &
Bassler, 2005). There is, therefore, a rich chemical vocabu-
lary that bacteria use to control numerous multicellular
traits. The role of multiple signaling molecules acting at
different concentrations to regulate particular phenotypes
is well documented in Vibrio and Pseudomonas (Henke &
Bassler, 2004; Soberon-Chavez et al., 2005; Venturi,
2006). The differences between the signals indicate that
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the syntax of this chemical language will prove far more
intricate than simple, density dependent quorum sensing.
The use of diffusible signals is only one way that bacteria
communicate. They also produce export and import struc-
tures that allow them to exchange genetic information and
commandeer eukaryotic cells (Chen et al., 2005; Yip et al.,
2005). These structures have been known since the earliest
days of molecular biology because some of them (plasmid
sex pili) are basic to much of bacterial genetics (Datta
et al., 1966; Hayes, 1968). The ability to take over the pro-
cesses of eukaryotic cells is especially relevant to a discus-
sion of the informatic capacities of bacteria. Two well
studied examples of these takeovers include Agrobacterium
T-DNA transfer into plant nuclei to create tumor cells that
feed the oncogenic bacterial population (McCullen &
Binns, 2006) and injection of proteins to reorganize mam-
malian host cell function and facilitate intracellular
pathogensis (Mota & Cornelis, 2005). The T-DNA encodes
plant hormones that redirect growth control as well as bio-
synthetic enzymes that create compounds uniquely metab-
olized by Agrobacterium. The pathogen protein injection
systems transfer molecules which disrupt signal transduc-
tion and cytoskeletal networks so that pathogenic bacteria,
like Shigella dysenteriae, can enter epithelial cells, migrate
between infected cells, and induce programmed cell death
in lymphocytes that fight bacterial infections (Sansonneti,
2001). Based on examples such as these, one can confi-
dently conclude that bacteria are master cell biologists and
possess both the know-how and the technology they need
to seize control of cell growth, metabolism and structure
from the most highly developed multicellular organisms.
6. A new paradigm for cells, genomes and evolution
Since I began my own research career forty-two years
ago, there has been a complete revolution in our under-
standing of how bacteria survive and reproduce. In the
1960s we had no idea of the intricacy of molecular mecha-
nisms for basic cellular processes, such as DNA replication,
transcription, or cell division. For example, I have used a
1968 Scientific American article on DNA replication by
Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg for teaching. In this
early paper, Kornberg (1968) postulated that replication
involved only a couple of proteins (polymerase and DNA
ligase). He did not mention such basic features of the rep-
lication process as primers for initiating polymerization or
the differences between copying leading and lagging
strands, let alone the requirements for primases, helicases,
topisomerases and clamps. Kornberg’s article reflected the
oversimplistic, reductionist thinking dominant in the first
three decades of molecular biology that was based on
mechanical, linear, sequential and unitary concepts of
how biological systems operate. There was virtually no idea
in the 1960s of ubiquitous multimolecular complexes or
signal transduction networks. In genetics, pre-DNA
ideas of genotype and phenotype dominated. Discussions
of cognition, communication and computation were
Among the many strands of research that simulta-
neously enabled and demanded a reconceptualization,
two are most relevant to my own experience. These are
the studies of regulation initiated at the Institut Pasteur,
where I had the good fortune to be a postdoctoral fellow,
and the molecular study of transposable elements. The
sequelae of Jacque Monod’s discoveries about bacterial
metabolism contain all the basic elements of transcriptional
regulation and cellular signal transduction: cis-acting sig-
nals in DNA, allostery, receptors, protein phosphorylation,
protein–protein interaction, nucleoprotein complexes and
second messengers. The operator was the prototype of all
the generic motifs in DNA that permit cells to carry out
the basic functions of genome compaction, replication,
transmission, expression and repair (Shapiro & Sternberg,
2005). The molecular confirmation in bacteria (and later
in eukaryotes) of McClintock’s cytogenetic discoveries in
maize revealed how inextricably multidirectional informa-
tion transfer between the genome and the rest of the cell
must be. Genomes contain sequences and encode molecules
that cells use to restructure DNA for adaptive purposes,
such as resource utilization, biocide resistance, and inter-
cellular communication. We have learned enough to realize
that how and when DNA restructuring occurs is a complex
expression of linkages between signal transduction net-
works, natural genetic engineering functions and the
The only way I know how to make sense out of the last
fifty years of molecular biology is to abandon the mecha-
nistic and atomistic ideas of the pre-DNA era and embrace
a more organic, cognitive and computational view of cells
and genomes. There are no units, only interactive systems.
Bacteria continually pick up and process information
about the environment, internal conditions and other cells
to decide on appropriate biochemical and biomechanical
actions. Comparisons to electronic information systems
are useful because they allow us to think concretely and sci-
entifically about complex information processing. For
example, considering the genome a ‘read-write’ storage
organelle rather than a ‘read-only memory’ frees us from
the restrictions of arbitrary assumptions about the ran-
domness of genomic change. This freedom will prove essen-
tial to understanding how intricate biological adaptations
have evolved (Shapiro, 2005). However, we should not
allow the electronic computation metaphor to become
another intellectual straitjacket. Our digital electronic com-
puting systems are far simpler than the distributed analog
processors in living cells.
The take-home lesson of more than half a century of
molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial infor-
mation processing is far more powerful than human tech-
nology. The selected examples of bacterial ‘smarts’ I have
given show convincingly that these small cells are incredi-
bly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving mil-
lions of individual events and at making them precise and
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in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermody-
namic transformations: processes more complex than the
largest human-engineered systems. This mastery over the
biosphere indicates that we have a great deal to learn about
chemistry, physics and evolution from our small, but very
intelligent, prokaryotic relatives.
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... But that neural viewpoint/assumption is increasingly questioned (Maturana & Varela, 1980;Lyon, 2015;Shapiro, 2007Shapiro, , 2021Beer, 2021;Lyon et al., 2021). With time, it has become evident that the Shettleworth definition could well apply to aneural life forms, from multicelled plant life (Gagliano, 2017) down to the simplest life form, bacteria. ...
... More recently, Shapiro (2021), in his study of bacteri al function, describes in detail the vari ous means by which bacteria sense their internal condition, and the elaborate response systems that are routinely activated. As he puts it: "bacteria are small, but not stupid" (Shapiro, 2007). Lyon (2015) has gone as far as to claim that cognitive terms such as decide, talk, listen, cheat, eavesdrop, lure, and vote are appropriate for describing remarkably complex bacterial social be hav ior. ...
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A unique exploration of teleonomy—also known as “evolved purposiveness”—as a major influence in evolution by a broad range of specialists in biology and the philosophy of science. The evolved purposiveness of living systems, termed “teleonomy” by chronobiologist Colin Pittendrigh, has been both a major outcome and causal factor in the history of life on Earth. Many theorists have appreciated this over the years, going back to Lamarck and even Darwin in the nineteenth century. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the complex, dynamic process of evolution was simplified into the one-way, bottom-up, single gene-centered paradigm widely known as the modern synthesis. In Evolution “On Purpose,” edited by Peter A. Corning, Stuart A. Kauffman, Denis Noble, James A. Shapiro, Richard I. Vane-Wright, and Addy Pross, some twenty theorists attempt to modify this reductive approach by exploring in depth the different ways in which living systems have themselves shaped the course of evolution. Evolution “On Purpose” puts forward a more inclusive theoretical synthesis that goes far beyond the underlying principles and assumptions of the modern synthesis to accommodate work since the 1950s in molecular genetics, developmental biology, epigenetic inheritance, genomics, multilevel selection, niche construction, physiology, behavior, biosemiotics, chemical reaction theory, and other fields. In the view of the authors, active biological processes are responsible for the direction and the rate of evolution. Essays in this collection grapple with topics from the two-way “read-write” genome to cognition and decision-making in plants to the niche-construction activities of many organisms to the self-making evolution of humankind. As this collection compellingly shows, and as bacterial geneticist James Shapiro emphasizes, “The capacity of living organisms to alter their own heredity is undeniable.”
... For example, living organisms demonstrate agency or an apparent sense of purpose (end-directed activity, also termed teleonomy), which has been suggested as the defining feature of life [3,4]. Some proponents have even suggested that even the simplest biological organisms possess a literal, cognizant sense of purpose [5]. However, agency cannot be the distinguishing feature of life because it is not unique to biological organisms. ...
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The multifarious internal workings of organisms are difficult to reconcile with a single feature defining a state of ‘being alive’. Indeed, definitions of life rely on emergent properties (growth, capacity to evolve, agency) only symptomatic of intrinsic functioning. Empirical studies demonstrate that biomolecules including ratcheting/rotating enzymes, ribozymes and pigment molecules undergo repetitive conformation state changes driven by energy absorption, excitation and relaxation. They exhibit disparate structures, but govern processes relying on directional physical motion (DNA transcription, translation, ATP synthesis, cytoskeleton transport, photosynthetic resonance energy transfer) and share the principle of repetitive uniplanar conformation changes driven by thermodynamic gradients, producing dependable unidirectional motion: ‘heat engines’ exploiting thermodynamic disequilibria to perform work. Recognition that disparate biological molecules share a heat engine principle governing directional motion, working in self-regulating networks, allows a mechanistic definition: life is a self-regulating process whereby matter undergoes cyclic, uniplanar conformation state changes that convert thermodynamic disequilibria into directed motion, performing work that locally reduces entropy. ‘Living things’ are structures including autonomous networks of units operating on the heat engine principle. Death is loss of integrated heat engine function. These principles are independent of any specific chemical environment, and can be applied to other biospheres.
... For example, living organisms demonstrate agency or an apparent sense of purpose (end-directed activity, also termed teleonomy), which has been suggested as the defining feature of life [3,4]. Some proponents have gone so far as to suggest that even the simplest biological organisms possess a literal, cognizant sense of purpose [5]. However, agency cannot be the distinguishing feature of life because it is not unique to biological organisms. ...
Full-text available
Simple Summary The state of ‘being alive’ is difficult to characterize because ‘life’ is currently defined using superficial features or long-term processes, rather than a single physical property unique to living things. For instance, biological molecules exhibit a vast range of structures and attributes, and a shared property is elusive. However, current knowledge suggests that key biomolecules governing a range of fundamental processes within cells do share one specific characteristic: all respond to energy absorption and dissipation by changing conformation and thus physical shape along one plane. Cyclic, repeated uniplanar shape changes induce unidirectional motion (linear or rotational movement) in molecules and the processes they govern, which is the basis of mechanistic activity and work within cells. In contrast, molecules in non-living systems do not change conformation in a way that performs work. The premise of energy conversion into directed motion suggests that life is a process whereby self-governing networks of molecular ‘heat engines’ create structure, whereas non-living structures are created and maintained by non-heat engine processes. A definition of life based on autonomous heat engine networks does not depend on any specific type of molecule or chemical process, and is potentially applicable to chemical environments different from those on Earth. Abstract The multifarious internal workings of organisms are difficult to reconcile with a single feature defining a state of ‘being alive’. Indeed, definitions of life rely on emergent properties (growth, capacity to evolve, agency) only symptomatic of intrinsic functioning. Empirical studies demonstrate that biomolecules including ratcheting or rotating enzymes and ribozymes undergo repetitive conformation state changes driven either directly or indirectly by thermodynamic gradients. They exhibit disparate structures, but govern processes relying on directional physical motion (DNA transcription, translation, cytoskeleton transport) and share the principle of repetitive uniplanar conformation changes driven by thermodynamic gradients, producing dependable unidirectional motion: ‘heat engines’ exploiting thermodynamic disequilibria to perform work. Recognition that disparate biological molecules demonstrate conformation state changes involving directional motion, working in self-regulating networks, allows a mechanistic definition: life is a self-regulating process whereby matter undergoes cyclic, uniplanar conformation state changes that convert thermodynamic disequilibria into directed motion, performing work that locally reduces entropy. ‘Living things’ are structures including an autonomous network of units exploiting thermodynamic gradients to drive uniplanar conformation state changes that perform work. These principles are independent of any specific chemical environment, and can be applied to other biospheres.
... Naturally, research has been limited to those particular 'basal' organisms that are easy to culture in the lab, and can be rigorously tested with behavioural experiments to which they unambiguously and reliably respond. This has included bacteria (Lyon 2015;Shapiro 2007), plants (reviewed in Segundo-Ortin and Calvo 2022), protists (e.g. Paramecium (Armus et al. 2006;Gelber 1957;Gershman et al. 2021), Amoeba (De la Fuente et al. 2019) and Stentor (Bennett and Francis 1972;Rajan et al. 2022)), and simple neural animals such as planaria (Prados et al. 2013(Prados et al. , 2020 and Cnidaria (Jennings 1905;Logan 1975). ...
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Sensing, communication, navigation, decision-making, memory and learning are key components in a standard cognitive tool-kit that enhance an animal’s ability to successfully survive and reproduce. However, these tools are not only useful for, or accessible to, animals—they evolved long ago in simpler organisms using mechanisms which may be either unique or widely conserved across diverse taxa. In this article, I review the recent research that demonstrates these key cognitive abilities in the plasmodial slime mould Physarum polycephalum, which has emerged as a model for non-animal cognition. I discuss the benefits and limitations of comparisons drawn between neural and non-neural systems, and the implications of common mechanisms across wide taxonomic divisions. I conclude by discussing future avenues of research that will draw the most benefit from a closer integration of Physarum and animal cognition research.
... This frame has been previously applied to the cellular genome as both 'natural genetic engineering' and 'natural genome editing'. The same conceptual framework has been applied to the developmental structure of microbial biofilms and multicellular eukaryotes as 'Natural Cellular Engineering' [34,35,37,39,40,129,130,160,[197][198][199][200][201][202][203][204]. Once biological processes are placed into the context of engineering, these coordinated activities can now be properly perceived as an issue of information management [33,35] ( Figure 3). ...
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Neo-Darwinism conceptualizes evolution as the continuous succession of predominately random genetic variations disciplined by natural selection. In that frame, the primary interaction between cells and the virome is relegated to host-parasite dynamics governed by selective influences. Cognition- Based Evolution regards biological and evolutionary development as a reciprocating cognition-based informational interactome for the protection of self-referential cells. To sustain cellular homeorhesis, cognitive cells collaborate to assess the validity of ambiguous biological information. That collective interaction involves coordinate measurement, communication, and active deployment of resources as Natural Cellular Engineering. These coordinated activities drive multicellularity, biological develop-ment, and evolutionary change. The virome participates as the vital intercessory among the cellular domains to ensure their shared permanent perpetuation. The interactions between the virome and the cellular domains represent active virocellular cross-communications for the continual exchange of resources. Modular genetic transfers between viruses and cells carry bioactive potentials. Those exchanges are deployed as nonrandom flexible tools among the domains in their continuous confrontation with environmental stresses. This alternative framework fundamentally shifts our perspective on viral-cellular interactions, strengthening established principles of viral symbiogenesis. Pathogenesis can now be properly appraised as one expression of a range of outcomes between cells and viruses within a larger conceptual framework of Natural Viral Engineering as a co-engineering participant with cells. It is proposed that Natural Viral Engineering should be viewed as a co-existent facet of Natural Cellular Engineering within Cognition-Based Evolution.
A evolução no entendimento dos mecanismos envolvidos na progressão de uma infecção microbiana vem mostrando aspectos inimaginados de comunicação intermicrobiana e de participação do microbioma na nossa proteção. O sucesso na instalação do processo infeccioso depende do resultado do embate entre os mecanismos patogênicos usados pelos germes agressores e as diversas estratégias usadas pelos componentes do microbioma visando impedir que os microrganismos patogênicos consigam colonizar e lesar o organismo humano. A complexidade dos recursos utilizados por seres unicelulares para nos infectar e nos defender surpreende e aponta para a necessidade de desenvolvimento de novas estratégias e instrumentos preventivos e terapêuticos.
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This paper argues that Machine Learning (ML) algorithms must be educated. ML-trained algorithms' moral decisions are ubiquitous in human society. Sometimes reverting the societal advances governments, NGOs and civil society have achieved with great effort in the last decades or are yet on the path to be achieved. While their decisions have an incommensurable impact on human societies, these algorithms are within the least educated agents known (data incomplete, un-inclusive, or biased). ML algorithms are not something separate from our human idiosyncrasy but an enactment of our most implicit prejudices and biases. Some research is devoted to "responsibility assignment" as a strategy to tackle immoral AI behaviour. Yet this paper argues that the solution for AI ethical decision-making resides in algorithm education" (as opposed to the "training") of ML. Drawing from an analogy between ML and child education for social responsibility, the paper offers clear directions for responsible and sustainable AI design, specifically with respect to how to educate algorithms to decide ethically.
In 2021 I noted that in all information-based systems we understand, Cognition creates Code, which controls Chemical reactions. Known agents write software which controls hardware, and not the other way around. I proposed the same is true in all of biology. Though the textbook description of cause and effect in biology proposes the reverse, that Chemical reactions produce Code from which Cognition emerges, there are no examples in the literature demonstrating either step. A mathematical proof for the first step, cognition generating code, is based on Turing's halting problem. The second step, code controlling chemical reactions, is the role of the genetic code. Thus a central question in biology: What is the nature and source of cognition? In this paper I propose a relationship between biology and Quantum Mechanics (QM), hypothesizing that the same principle that enables an observer to collapse a wave function also grants biology its agency: the organism's ability to act on the world instead of merely being a passive recipient. Just as all living cells are cognitive (Shapiro 2021, 2007; McClintock 1984; Lyon 2015; Levin 2019, Pascal and Pross, 2022), I propose humans are quantum observers because we are made of cells and all cells are observers. This supports the century-old view that in QM, the observer does not merely record the event but plays a fundamental role in its outcome.The classical world is driven by laws, which are deductive; the quantum world is driven by choices, which are inductive. When the two are combined, they form the master feedback loop of perception and action for all biology. In this paper I apply basic definitions of induction, deduction and computation to known properties of QM to show that the organism altering itself (and its environment) is a whole shaping its parts. It is not merely parts comprising a whole. I propose that an observer collapsing the wave function is the physical mechanism for producing negentropy. The way forward in solving the information problem in biology is understanding the relationship between cognition and QM.
In eucaryotes a cell cycle control called a checkpoint ensures that mitosis occurs only after chromosomes are completely replicated and any damage is repaired. The function of this checkpoint in budding yeast requires the RAD9 gene. Here we examine the role of the RAD9 gene in the arrest of the 12 cell division cycle (cdc) mutants, temperature-sensitive lethal mutants that arrest in specific phases of the cell cycle at a restrictive temperature. We found that in four cdc mutants the cdc rad9 cells failed to arrest after a shift to the restrictive temperature, rather they continued cell division and died rapidly, whereas the cdc RAD cells arrested and remained viable. The cell cycle and genetic phenotypes of the 12 cdc RAD mutants indicate the function of the RAD9 checkpoint is phase-specific and signal-specific. First, the four cdc RAD mutants that required RAD9 each arrested in the late S/G2 phase after a shift to the restrictive temperature when DNA replication was complete or nearly complete, and second, each leaves DNA lesions when the CDC gene product is limiting for cell division. Three of the four CDC genes are known to encode DNA replication enzymes. We found that the RAD17 gene is also essential for the function of the RAD9 checkpoint because it is required for phase-specific arrest of the same four cdc mutants. We also show that both X- or UV-irradiated cells require the RAD9 and RAD17 genes for delay in the G2 phase. Together, these results indicate that the RAD9 checkpoint is apparently activated only by DNA lesions and arrests cell division only in the late S/G2 phase.
The araB-lacZ fusion system has been a key case in the ‘directed mutation’ controversy. Fusions did not occur detectably during normal growth but formed readily after prolonged incubation on selective Ara-Lac medium. To distinguish the roles of starvation stress and selective substrates in coding sequence fusions, we applied sib selection and PCR technologies. Sib selection of the prefusion strain, MCS2, starved under aerobic conditions permitted us to isolate active fusion clones which had never been in contact with arabinose or lactose. Hence, a directive role for selective substrates is not essential. Aerobiosis was necessary for fusions to appear in glucose-starved cultures. The difference in fusion formation between normal and starved conditions is best explained by the response of a signal transduction network to physiological stimuli to activate Mu prophage joining of araB and lacZ sequences. PCR analysis revealed that direct plating on selective Ara-Lac agar yielded mostly a single class of ‘standard’ fusions, while sib selection yielded a broader spectrum of fusion structures. Standard fusions were found to occur within a narrow 9 bp window in lacZ. The high frequency of standard fusions in glucose-starved cultures suggested efficient and/or specific Mu action.
Bacteria that attach to surfaces aggregate in a hydrated polymeric matrix of their own synthesis to form biofilms. Formation of these sessile communities and their inherent resistance to antimicrobial agents are at the root of many persistent and chronic bacterial infections. Studies of biofilms have revealed differentiated, structured groups of cells with community properties. Recent advances in our understanding of the genetic and molecular basis of bacterial community behavior point to therapeutic targets that may provide a means for the control of biofilm infections.