A gene’s way

A few weeks ago, Steve Gingold posted lovely images of Painted Trillium.  He did so again, just the other day. Click the links to see specimens from west-central Massachusetts, then look below at Trillium I saw yesterday here in east-central Vermont. The former seem vigorous. The latter seems tired. Its mottled translucence and peaked blush tell me not that the individual is in poor health. To the contrary, I interpret these as sure signs of a plant making the transition between one physiological state and another. Signs of an individual whose genome has triggered a shift-in-gears, a change-in-strategy.

The stages of the life of a plant proceed, roughly, from seed, to embryo, seedling, mature plant, egg (ovule) and sperm (pollen), fertilization, fruit and to seed once again. There may be thousands of genes coding for the materials needed to accomplish each of these stages. And recognize that all of these aren’t needed all the time. So, genes must be regulated such that their products are only manufactured when called for.

A single Trillium plant may produce as many as fifty ovules. Once these are fertilized the plant must shift gears and move on to the business of setting seed and to preparing for the coming winter. There is no longer any need to attract pollinators and so the fancy petals and flashy pigments can go. It’s better, in an economic sense, to withdraw whatever materials might be available in those parts and to then shut them down.

The histories of all organisms have been such that they have, within limits imposed by the genome itself, maximized the efficiency with which they are able to make copies of themselves. They replicate because genes direct them to do so. To put a fine point on this argument, it is the genes that have evolved over millions of generations to maximize the efficiency with which they are able to direct the bodies of the organisms, within which they may be found, to make copies of themselves. Some would say that a Trillium plant is a Trillium gene’s way of making another Trillium gene. Think about that.


16 thoughts on “A gene’s way

  1. And I totally agree. It is. It is also a massively energetic process and, from a physics / engineering point of view, a marvelous thing to watch. Designers use their structured methods to create things and here, through a series of happy accidents, we have a machine that is so much better. Maybe not so ‘elegant’ but so much more ingenious! What a thing is time…when you have lots of it.

  2. Great post – in particular the conclusion in the last paragraph. For me, this is proof enough that we should better not try to over-optimize things with GMOs and outsmart a process that has run for millions of years.

    • Yes, it’s pretty bold to assume that we can do it better than a process which has been optimizing life here for more than 4 billion years. What we will do, for short-term benefits (in agricultural yields), might very well have unanticipated side-consequences. Time will tell.

  3. Ha! I’m an inveterate link-clicker, and I clicked yours. I can’t help noting, with a grin, that if anthropomorphizing is good enough for Dawkins, it’s good enough for me. I’ll stop feeling vaguely uncomfortable about my tendency, anyway.

    Your mention of the translucence of the petals reminded me of the lead illustration for a wonderful piece I recently read called “The Real Secret of Youth is Complexity.” It seems to me that you and the other writer are making the same point, albeit somewhat differently. Neat post.

    • Thanks Linda. Your careful analysis and insightful observations (often combined with reference to outside world and outside sources) is always interesting and appreciated.

  4. Thanks for mentioning my images, David. Unfortunately, I can identify with your specimen having reached a stage where I think my genes have told my body that it’s time to give up thoughts of youth and even middle age and prepare for the latter stages. But that’s natural. I don’t think we’d enjoy staying 25 forever. Of course, since we can’t then we say we don’t wish to. Not all of us get to appreciate what growing old is like.

    Humans are unique in our evolution to have choices and distractions disconnected from the basic requirements of maturation. I am not sure that is an advantage, as we have discussed recently, but I am also not willing to shed all my comforts and go live in a wet cave somewhere. It is our good fortune to be able to study and enjoy what all the other organisms, and us too, are doing according to their internal clocks and maps.

    I am enjoying your posts and the direction you’ve taken. I forget who asked you about pursuing science writing but I echo her suggestion. Although I don’t always follow as closely as one might with a better understanding of the subjects, the posts are informative and raise one’s curiosity.

    • Thanks for the positive and supportive comments in your last paragraph. I have never thought of myself as much of a writer and therefore appreciate your observations very much. Also … there is much wisdom in your first and second paragraphs as well.

  5. One of my very favourite flowers. I remember asking you once when I was about 10, why living organisms work so hard to survive and reproduce themselves, and I still remember your answer … you said, Because they can!

  6. Thankful that spring has finally arrived so we may be treated to all these beautiful floral images. The green leaves are a perfect background for this lovely lady!

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