The Planetary News Radio – Episode 7: Preserving Biodiversity – Insects, Fungus, and Plastic

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 7 with Bryan White. The date is May 29th. It’s around four o’clock in the afternoon in Corvallis, Oregon. I’m outside again. So I apologize in advance for any strange sounds, although I’m in a quiet area, and that’s a good segue way to what I’m going to talk about today, which are insects. Now, the air temperature is finally warming up and I saw a Mayfly today, a little late in the season, although I haven’t been looking for them. But mayflies typically will emerge in May into adulthood. The order name for mayflies is Ephemeroptera, probably from the root ephemeral meaning temporary, which is strange because they’re actually quite long lived as larva, so Mayfly larva might spend two or three years eating in the stream and then swim up, moult, metamorphose into an adult, reproduce, and then die all in about a week. In fact, they’re so short lived as adults that their mouth parts are fused shut. They don’t eat anymore. So unlike a butterfly, that eats as a caterpillar and continues to eat as an adult, Mayflies are done once they pass through the larval form. And so that’s what’s going on now. Mayflies. They’re out and about, seasonal insects.

[Which brings me to the topic of this podcast,] “Why are insects special”? I mentioned in the previous talk about my idea for why we should preserve all biodiversity. Why should we value all biodiversity? It’s not physically possible to preserve every species, but we can certainly agree that there is a scientific value to preserving biodiversity, and insects are a great example. Insects or one of the most speciose as animal groups go. They might be the most speciose animal group, aside from maybe nematodes. Estimates of the total number of species for insects might range somewhere to 5 million, [up to 30 million including undiscovered species] with the total number of all animal species being [at least] 10 million. So that would mean insects make up maybe [at least] half of all animal species by count, maybe not by biomass, but that’s an incredible amount of diversity.

So what’s going on when that much diversity is happening [within a single taxonomic group]? A couple of things. One is that insects are different from vertebrates [in some key ways]. What allows them to adapt in terms of evolutionary time more quickly than vertebrates? [For one], they’re less constrained by their skeleton and by their body plan. So insects are more tolerant of maybe minor changes in their body structures: mouthparts, feeding structures, reproductive structures, and their flying/walking structures. So all of these things are much more flexible, whereas even a small change and the number of fingers that a human has could be could have a severe impact. Maybe not in modern times missing a finger isn’t too big of a deal. But maybe 1 million years ago, missing a finger was a big deal, and you might not have survived. So you see, chimpanzees have 10 fingers and humans have 10 fingers. We’re separated by 7 million years of evolution. [In the case of insects], within that same amount of time, [you’ll see them] duplicating appendages, losing appendages and things like that much more frequently, so insects are hyper adaptable. They’re out there filling all of these ecological niche spaces.

A good way to think about an ecological niche is that the environment is an N-dimensional hypervolume. There’s all these dimensions that could be occupied, [where each dimension represents a unique ecological environment], and an organism will go and occupy what it’s already adapted to, but then it might shift and adjust and fill various other dimensions in the ecological hyperspace. [After some more time] it might divide into more species, and those species might diverge and fill more of this space, until eventually the entire ecosystem space is filled by something. In a small ecosystem, this might be only one or two species. In a large ecosystem, it could be hundreds or thousands of species all the way up [through the trophic levels], from bacteria up to primary apex predators.

Insects are hyper adaptable, which means they can go into an ecosystem and fill all those little voids in the N-dimensional hypervolume that aren’t currently being occupied by an organism. You have primary producers, secondary producers, you have consumers, all within the insect world, so you have a full ecosystem just based on insects. That’s a lot of biodiversity. Every one of those ecological niches requires a genetic change in the organism, so every time a new species evolves, or diverges from an old species, one species splits for some reason, or even new variability within the species. Anytime a species gains in new adaptation, that’s a new piece in the genome. It’s a new genetic element that’s [translates into a] new physiological element. It’s a new piece of biological information, and my argument is that biological information is extremely important, but not just the genome. The genome isn’t enough. We need the phenotype, so we need to know how the genome builds itself. Builds the proteins in the organism. So we want to be able to see organism’s alive in their natural habitat in order to understand the genomic component to that diversity.

[To recap] what I’m just presenting here, is an argument that insects are very speciose, therefore, they have lots of biodiversity, and therefore they have lots of unique genetic elements. Now here’s a question someone might pose to me. Are any of those genetic elements useful? And the answer is, “I don’t know”. Maybe they might be. Some of them might be useful, and some of them might not. It depends on your definition of useful. For example, a fungus that grows on a tree might not be immediately useful, however, fungus growing on a tree [might be] breaking down wood lignin the molecule, and so this fungus is secreting a chemical that can break down lignin. Wood is a very strong material we know, because wood survive thousands and thousands of years intact. We use it to build houses, things like that. It’s kind of similar to plastic. Lignin is a polymer. Trees are building themselves as a polymer. So if we want to develop a chemical process for breaking down plastic [(a polymer)], we might look at something like a fungus that eats wood, [specifically] the wood rot class of fungus.

[Suppose someone did experiment to see if wood rot fungus could break down plastic, but it didn’t work. Then you might say,] “Well, lignin is too different from plastic. We can’t use this fungus to break down lignin because the molecule is too different from plastic”. And I might respond, “Well, okay, are there any organisms that do produce a molecule that do break down plastic”? [Which it just so happens that] there are. There are bacteria that will happily degrade petroleum based products like oil. However, these bacteria, they may be marine and have to be grown in [sea water], and so we want to do is create a genetically modified organism that has the structural properties of a fungus, [but the chemical properties of the bacteria]. We want to make a wood rot fungus that can degrade plastic, and so we could take the gene from the bacteria and [transfer it into the fungus so that the fungus can] produce the plastic degradation chemical. And now we have a fungus that can break down plastic.

[Using this method we end up with something] a little more useful than the bacteria, because now you could do is you could take a landfill and create an environment that will grow this fungus and plastic mashed in together, and we can erode the plastic. While you could do this directly with the bacteria [that can decay plastic], then you would have to do an active process because you have to keep the bacteria alive. You have to culture the bacteria, and so you need energy. And so my suggestion is to use the fungus because it doesn’t require extra input energy. All you do is you put it outside and you let it go, but it has [to have] that chemical [acquired from bacteria] to break down plastic, otherwise, it’ll just sit there. And maybe we can tweak the fungus a few other ways so it can grow in soil and we might have to modify its habitat a little bit. We want to keep the soil moist so the fungus has water to conduct its chemical reactions when it add some nutrients. But for the most part, [with] fungus, you just put it out and it grows. And if this fungus has a chemical that breaks down bacteria, we could create landfills that can destroy plastic. And that will help solve our plastic problem.

What about with insects? Well, maybe we could do the same thing. We can make a caterpillar that can break down plastic. Maybe there’s a parasite that lives inside of caterpillar that digests compounds similar to plastic, and so maybe there already is a caterpillar out there that can break down plastic. [The point is, if we have the available biodiversity, we can create as many different types of “plastic degrading organisms as feasible]. We could just have the fungus. Or we could have the fungus and the caterpillars, and so we could create an entire ecosystem where the fungus and the caterpillar are growing and living together. The caterpillars eat, deposit, nitrogen and things like that into the soil. The fungus grows, and it’s a whole little life cycle, all based on the degradation of plastic without any added energy input. We don’t need to run an expensive, dirty, fire based bioreactor that burns trash puts out chemicals. It’s all passive.

So how does that link back to my original statement? Well, if we lose that species of caterpillar, then we lose [the ability to create] that entire system. So if a caterpillar that could break down plastic goes extinct before we’ve figured out how to cultivate it in the lab, then we lose this entire opportunity to degrade plastic and this really efficient, really cool way. And we don’t know what’s out there, [there might be other organisms and biochemicals out there that we haven’t even imagined possible yet]. So every time we lose a species, we don’t know what we lost. Maybe we’re losing plastic degraders. And maybe it doesn’t matter most of the time, and probably 90% of the time it didn’t matter, [in terms of biochemical diversity when a species was lost]. Maybe the special biochemical adaptations that the organism had were already duplicated [in another species], and other members of the genus, or the order, [or some other] higher taxonomic level. Maybe that animal wasn’t that unique and so we didn’t really lose that much information. [But again,] we don’t know what’s out there, [so we don’t know what we’re losing in terms of physiological biodiversity]. We don’t [really have] anything cataloged [in a meaningful way to address this problem].

If we really wanted to answer the questions, “What are we losing [in terms of genetic engineering potential]?” and “Are we losing an important species?”, we have to catalog the species [in a meaningful way]. Now, how could we do that? Well, we have to find them and sequence their DNA. Sequencing DNA is really good for cataloging [and understanding diversity]. But if we want to actually create real biological systems, we need to have the animals or the organism’s alive. And so that’s why biodiversity [itself] is so important and why preserving [as much] biodiversity [as possible] is so important. If we think of [living organisms as being filled with] these as tiny molecular machines that are jam packed full of information that we can learn from for how to create our own systems, our own molecular machinery, then biodiversity becomes really important.

And sure, maybe someday in the future of humanity, there will be a time where we don’t need animals anymore. And maybe that’s a question for future humans to answer. [In a future where] biodiversity no longer serves a function in the human economy. [In other words, when even the knowledge we could gain from the genetics of animals is no longer relevant], will we still keep animals? Will our descendants 500 years from now have zoos just for fun, just to look at animals and remember where we originated from? Remember that we are animals. Maybe we’ll have zoos. Maybe we’ll make new animals. Maybe humans will merge and split and divide into 10 new different species. We don’t know what’s going to happen [in 500 years], but when we lose the species, we lose the option.

So that is more insight into my thinking and the reason I think this way is because again, as I mentioned previously, my goal is not to just be a animal rights activist. My goal is to be pragmatic. I’m saying there is a real pragmatic reason to keep animal diversity life, [and all] biodiversity alive. And so this argument should work across the entire political spectrum. I should be able to convince a fiscal conservative or liberal that preserving biodiversity is important because it’s an investment in humanity. It’s not just to feel good, although it might make us feel good. Feeling good about animals is just an added benefit. And trees, we are, after all, apes. We were born in the trees. We left them, but we still need them. It’s okay to like trees. We should enjoy wildlife and the outdoors and nature, and we should be able to have a good reason for keeping it around. So that’s what I’m offering, [a reason to preserve biodiversity that can appeal to all humans].

I’m sure I’ll talk more about this as I formalize the idea more, but I think this was a really good example. Insects and fungus. Interestingly, both organisms that use chitin as there primary structural bio-protein. There’s something special about chitin. It’s an interesting molecule for evolutionary genetics, but I won’t say more in this episode. I’ll let everyone think about this topic. This is Bryan White signing off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 3: Space as a Visual Science

Hello and welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 3. The date is still May 26th. I recorded an episode a little bit earlier today, and it’s so nice out that I could not resist traveling to a park and recording another episode. The weather is just amazing here in Oregon today, and so I’m in a good mood and ready to talk about science. So where was I [at the end of last episode]? The the other [topic] is actually a really important point that I’ve been developing for awhile. So at the end of last episode, I mentioned Space Science is a very popular science in the news. And so the question is, why is space so popular? And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and these are my thoughts.

One of my thoughts is that space is very visual. Astronomy is very visual, and it always has been. If you think about it, astronomy is probably one of the oldest real sciences. Maybe the first real science mixed in with physics. If we consider that Isaac Newton was one of the true founders of the scientific method, not necessarily science in terms of understanding the natural world, Aristotle being one of the first people to record his understanding of the natural world in a way that was meaningful to other people. Aristotle, Euclid, those types of early natural science philosophers. However, they didn’t really employ the scientific method. So we think of Isaac Newton as one of the first people to employ the scientific method along with Galileo in that [meaning of the phrase “scientific method”]. Astronomy was at this focal point.

Biology [might also be thought of as one of the oldest sciences], while something that Aristotle focused heavily on, and Plato thought a lot about the philosophy of biology. Biology was not really conducted in a scientific manner probably until around Darwin’s time, so astronomy and geology were becoming rigorous sciences and chemistry much earlier than biology. But again, and, that’s part of my idea, is that astronomy is so popular because it is a visual science and that this is tied in with human evolution.

And so humans are a very visual species. We have color vision. A lot of mammals don’t have color vision. We don’t necessarily have very good distance vision, but we have very good 3D vision. We have lots of things that can help us see depth perception. We have very good depth perception. Our eyes are focused forward, which would make us in line with predator vision like a dog or a hawk, as opposed to, say, a cow or a goat whose eyes are on the side. Humans are very visually orientated in terms of their biology. And so this is obviously something Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are always talking about – looking out at the stars is something that humans have done for thousands, if not millions of years. And it’s part of our nature. It’s part of our biology. It’s part of how our brain evolved. We evolved with the stars. We evolved with fruit. We evolved having to identify food using color. Using depth perception, too, we evolved in the trees – we had to be able to judge a leap.

We evolved language, which is potentially related to the use of tools. So as we evolved fine motor skills to manipulate the world in front of us, we evolved language, and so even language is potentially tied to human’s ability to visualize. And so what’s happened is that astronomy and spaces so visual, so easy for us to see, that it resonates with people. And that’s good. I appreciate that. I love space. I love astronomy, even cosmology. Even things that we can’t see in space. We can imagine them. It’s easy for us to imagine a galaxy, and a star, and other planets because we’ve seen our own planet, we’ve seen Mars, the moon, and the sun. And so we know what planets in our solar system look like and we can imagine what planets in other solar systems might look like.

And so, you see the Trappist systems a great example, I think has five or six planets or so all rocky planets, but about the size of Jupiter Earth. So giant rocky planets much closer to their star than Earth. We can imagine them orbiting the star and we don’t have to be a scientist to do that. I am not an astronomer by training, but I can imagine seeing these planets all very close to each other. So imagine if instead of the [Moon right next to us, we had Mars instead]. That would be amazing. So we have this fascination with these star systems and space and travel, and that’s another human nature. To travel. We like to travel. And so space is a traveling science because we can see it, but then [we can] only imagine if we could travel there. Imagine if we could travel to the moon or travel to Mars or travel to the Trappist system.

Space just pulls at our natural emotions that we have as humans to travel, to journey, to adventure, and to beauty. We see these planets and we imagine them, and when you see an artist’s rendition of a planet that we’ve never seen before, it’s always very beautiful. Humans tend to conceptualize things, in an artistic fashion when we’re imagining them. And so space is also an art, or the visualization of it is an art on. Probably the greatest examples of that is the visualization of the black hole that was done for the movie interstellar. Some physics calculations were made or formulas were invented to understand what black hole looks like, and this has been going on for many years, and as we’ve collected more data, these models have gotten better, and now, with increased computational power, we’re able to produce this model that was good enough for Hollywood. And so it’s an art, and it’s beautiful when we look at it, when we think of imagining seeing a black hole, or at least from a safe distance, imagine seen what that looked like. The disc, the accretion disc around the black hole, reflecting light in all directions towards us. It sparks something inside of us.

So space is fascinating at so many levels for humans, and that’s good because it gets people excited about science. And I think that’s why you have people like Carl Sagan who were so successful because the science that they championed was easy for people to understand [at a visual level]. Now imagine trying to champion something that is not so intuitive. Maybe not so beautiful. Biology is [less intuitive at certain levels]. People can connect with animals on an emotional level. We can connect with [the idea of] a panda bear going extinct. We can connect with the polar bears going extinct, so humans can connect with biology. It takes some [work to understand the more] abstract concepts though. Evolution is an abstract concept, and you can’t see evolution happening. You also can’t see the formation of the solar system, but you can see the solar system and you can see rocks. And so in rocks, you can see the history of the planet, whereas in a polar bear I can’t see the history of its evolution, at least not easily. Not until maybe you look at its genome, and so within the genome you can see evolutionary history.

The genome is like a rock in the sense that it’s recorded some of the history and, like rocks, they lose pieces of their history is they go through processes, heating and deformation, under the earth. Genomes also lose information, although genomes lose information in a different way then rocks. When a genome loses a gene, it’s gone forever completely from that individual. You might be able to find remnants of it or in other species. And so piecing together evolutionary history becomes an abstract process similar to archaeology, digging and finding different artifacts in layers through time. And so archaeology is a good example of visual science that we understand easily. Again we understand artifacts, we understand history, and archeology, of course, is the study of humans. So we, [as humans], understand humans.

Archaeology lends itself well [to visualization], and so you see National Geographic, [which is] an extremely popular publication, and a lot of its focus when it comes to science is archaeology. You see Egypt, mummy’s, and things like that are always popular National Geographic topics. Undiscovered tribes in the Amazon. Things like that again. Visual. But let’s look it something less visual again. [For example,] Chemistry, chemical bonds. So understanding what’s happening at the nano-scale is less intuitive for humans.

Why think space science is so popular and why things like biology are not now [in the news]. So we see biology not as popular. And so the question, is, maybe that’s because biology doesn’t have a great human, [scientific] impact. Well, arguably a species, say for example, the existence of the species polar bears is probably as important as the existence of the Moon. Let’s think of the moon as a species and Mars as a species. And so if we lost the Moon, the entire Earth would suffer or at least change. We lose a lot of our things that are affected by gravity, like the tides and things like that, and our orbit around the sun could be altered, so losing the Moon would cause an immediate major impact on the earth. And we would notice that immediately. Losing polar bears, we might not notice immediately. However, the long term scientific impact of losing the species [could be great]. That means that we’ve lost that species’ genome at a minimum, and we’ve lost the genome in its native form. We’ve lost the animal. [Essentially,] we’ve lost what we can learn from a polar bear.

And so this would be the question I would pose to people. And I say, well, do you have nothing to learn from a polar bear? And if that’s the case, if you believe that humanity has nothing to learn from a polar bear, well, then that’s fine. Then let them go extinct. Why waste the effort to keep them alive if they have no benefits of humanity other than their own life and their own feelings as a vertebrate? Well, [in that scenario] then, that’s fine. The ones that are alive today let them live, the ones that will not be born because of climate change, well, they’ll never feel pain, so the extinction of the species is not important. But that is if the answer to the question “Do we have anything to learn from a polar bear?” is nothing. And I would argue that we do have something to learn from a polar bear.

At a minimum, we can learn how to live like a polar bear. And so you can ask a question: Well, why would you want to learn to live like a polar bear? Imagine all of the bio-molecules in the genome of the polar bear that [the animal] produces and humans, [or any other anima], don’t produce. And so imagine we understood 10% of [polar bear physiology] today, based on current technology, which is probably a generous estimate. Now you lose the polar bear and you say, “Well, okay, well, we have the genome in the computer. We can use simulations. We can understand some proteins”. You could understand how the polar bear made its skin and made its hair. And we might have 10% of the information of what a polar bear was today. And then we might say, “Well, okay, that’s good enough. We have some information about other bears. We can learn, you know, a little bit about genomics from bears”. And we might say, “Well, we’re happy with that. And it’s too bad you know, that the polar bears went extinct, but they’re not alive suffering”, at least so you could say that.

Or you could think about it in terms of the future of the human species and think over the course of the next 500 years, think of what we can understand with a more sophisticated understanding of genomics. So imagine we were still developing a technology that could give us a tenfold increase of the understanding of genomics, but that this technology did not develop until the next 100 years. And by the time this technology were developed, polar bears were extinct, and so are 1,000 other vertebrate species. And so we lost all of that data forever because this technology was not developed [while the animal was still alive]. And so my point is, we don’t know what we can learn from a polar bear. We don’t know what we can learn from bald eagles, or a red panda, or a regular panda. We don’t know what we can learn from these animals because we are still in the early phases of developing genomic technology and all of the other omics, proteomics, and things like that.

We don’t know what we can learn. And so there’s hidden secrets in all of these animals because biology is still, to this day, the most sophisticated producer of molecular machinery on the planet Earth. No human can create more sophisticated molecular machinery than a single cell. To do so would be to do so using a cell. So when we create sophisticated molecular machines we’re using cells or were modifying a cell. We have a lot to learn from cells, so we should keep as many different kinds of cells [alive] as we can in order to learn the most. And that’s [the core of] my argument for preserving biodiversity: Because we don’t know what we have to lose. We don’t know what we have to [gain], and so we should preserve as much of that as we can, and we should do that in the living organism.

In other words, an ark of [refrigerated] DNA is not enough. An ark of frozen DNA/tissue is not enough. We need the living animal alive to learn from it. My argument is – I don’t care if you don’t like polar bears. I mean, I don’t wanna hang out with a polar bear. I think they look nice. I think they’re fascinating creatures. I would not want to be in the same room as a polar bear because it would probably attack me. I mean, unless I was the zoo trainer, right? But in the wild, I would not approach the polar bear. You know, I have no interest in interacting with polar bears. They do their thing. I do my thing. However, from a scientific perspective, I want to learn from this animal in a controlled setting. [If you agree with this line of reasoning, then you’d agree] there is a benefit to keeping them alive.

So for me personally, keeping [polar bears, as a species,] alive satisfies two things. My own personal belief that I think they’re fascinating animals in their own habitat and so it makes me happy to know that they’re alive and well. And on the other hand, it allows us to study them and learn from them in the future when we have the technology to do so. This is where I depart from some people who you know want to live with animals and things like that. That’s not me. That’s not my argument. I’m not saying that you have to go live with the polar bears and love polar bears. Now I don’t say that because I do not love [polar bears]. I like them and I’m fascinated by them [from a scientific perspective]. But I don’t love them, not in the same way that I feel about human friends and family. And I’m not saying that people who do love animals in the same way they love humans are wrong or bad. I might feel that way about a dog. Certainly a dog is a companion that I could have a human type bond with. But I don’t think that everybody has to have a human level companionship with an animal just to support keeping that animal [species] alive.

I think a lot of the criticism of animal rights activists or leveled against animal rights activists and criticisms leveled against biologists and conservation biologist is [the critics] say, “Well, we don’t care about that animal. You know, I don’t love a wolf or whatever”. It’s like, well, you don’t have to feel the same way about a wolf that you do about a human in order to preserve it and protect it. We just have to recognize that not only are they a fascinating creature that deserves to have its own life without human interaction, but that also there is a human benefit to every animal. Every [animal] species, maybe not every bacterial species. There’s a trillion of them, if we can even define that bacteria have species, but certainly vertebrate species or fish species, jellyfish, any animal, potentially any plant, or fungus. All of these organisms can provide us another clue about evolution, another clue about how biology works, about how molecular machinery works, and so even a material scientist should be arguing for [preserving] biodiversity. Everybody should, because biodiversity is the true great wonder, not just of humanity, but of the Earth. And so, as stewards of the Earth, we should protect biodiversity, the biodiversity that evolved here that’s so rare. And so that’s my argument for protecting biodiversity. I won’t say anymore today, at least on that, and I hope you enjoyed [this podcast]. Please do you find time to send questions. I’ll try to have a link [in the feed]. I’ll try to have a way for people to submit questions and things like that soon. So if you are listening to this, maybe write them down and in future episodes, I’ll direct everyone to a link. So anyways, thanks for listening. That’s Bryan White sending off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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