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Chlorophyll

ChlorophyllIndulge me while I blur a few lines...

We don’t think of biology as technology, except when humans have tampered with it. Even if we’re not comfortable with interpreting the incredible achievements of organisms in terms of technology, we can understand the connection by analogy. The gap here, the difficulty, is that we view technology as something planned and designed, and don’t want to share this feat with other animals, even now when it’s clear that tools are something we share with other mammals, birds, fish, and more than one kind of octopus.

DNA is the original technology, or proto-technology if you prefer, a means for combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus into amino acids and forming those into proteins, from which all organisms are founded. Now intriguingly, other atoms are used in biology but solely because of the creation of proteins that happen to fold in such a way as to bond to some specific atom or ion like a key fitting a lock. Magnesium, for instance, sits squarely in the centre of a molecular ring ‘designed’ to make use of it in chlorophyll. It’s a clever piece of molecular engineering, and one that animals would later reuse for haemoglobin, which has the same basic structure but with iron in the centre. For chlorophyll, the magnesium forms a chemical photocell capable of absorbing certain wavelengths of light from our sun and turning it into energy. All plant and indeed animal life on our planet depends upon this specific chemical that algae developed and which later gave rise to plants.

Now if we take the entities built of DNA and its five elemental building blocks as ‘organisms’, chlorophyll can be seen as a magnesium-based photocell technology, and plants can be thought of as a proto-cyborg (accepting this blurring between organism and technology for the purpose of thinking this through). That allows us to ask: what are the cybervirtues of chlorophyll?

Precisely because of their intimate relationship with chlorophyll, plants are punctual and tenacious (proto-)cyborgs that show a potentially admirable commitment to soaking up the sun. Yet they also developed diverse responses to sharing space with one another: while some plants compete to tower above and collect the most light, others settle into spaces below the canopy and content themselves with living in shade. Indeed, they become so comfortable in such places that too much sunlight would be fatal. Still, they remain resolutely committed to collecting sunlight. We can admire the cyber-tenacity of the chlorophyll cyborgs, even without thinking that there is no conscious choice involved in them behaving this way.

If this is a fanciful way of thinking about plants – as photocell cyborgs – it at least offers a way of thinking about contemporary biotechnology that isn’t just about configuring organisms for human profit. Cyborgs or not, plants have their own excellences. We ought to consider that when we decide to tamper with the nature of their being.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #7

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