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Comments on Forbes article on biomimicry

Steven Kotler, at Forbes, recently posted a story titled "Move Over Genetic-Engineering; Biomimicry Seems The Better Bet For Solving Global Hunger."

The Forbes site said I could comment using my Google identity, if they could just have access to my contact list. No thanks. I"m amazed it's even legal to ask, if it is.

So I'll comment here. Biomimicry is a major theme of my recently published book, Darwinian Agriculture -- but biomimicry of what?

The adaptations of individual plants, animals, and microbes have been improved (by the criterion of Darwinian fitness in past environments) through millions of years of competitive testing against alternatives. But larger-scale patterns we see in nature, such as the total number of species in a forest, or how trees are arranged, haven't been tested competitively. Trees compete against trees, but forests don't compete against forests.

If we copy individual adaptations of trees, we are copying the winners of many past rounds of competition. A forest may have persisted for thousands of years, so it's probably not too dysfunctional. But it hasn't been tested through repeated competition, so there's likely to be plenty of room for improvement.

I would have expected a writer at Forbes -- do they still call themselves "a capitalist tool?" -- to understand how competition is key to improvement, but apparently not.

Now, what about the specific examples in the Forbes post? Spiders compete against spiders and sharks compete against sharks, so it's not surprising that spider silk and shark skin are awesome.

But his "favorite" example is that wildlife corridors that mimic electric circuits work better. I'm not sure what point Kotler is trying to make here -- did he not notice that this is biomimicry in the opposite direction? Although caribou have competed against caribou, curved and straight wildlife migration corridors haven't competed against each other. (OK, maybe they have competed for caribou and their manure, sort of, but the winning corridors don't produce "offspring" with the same degree of curvature.) So this case calls for intelligent design by humans, not mimicry of large-scale patterns seen in nature.

And then there's the endophyte example. Some fungi that live inside plants can provide major benefits to those plants. We will be reading and discussing journal articles about this in a couple weeks, in our graduate seminar.

If there were only one fungus per plant, fungi that benefit their hosts would thereby benefit themselves. But mixed infections seems to be common. With mixed infection, a fungus that invests resources to benefit the host is like someone who pays taxes when nobody else does. Admirable, perhaps, but not likely to be very successful. It's a variation on the classic "tragedy of the commons."

One benefit often provided by endophytes is chemical defense against a plant's enemies. This case isn't too hard to understand. Maybe the various fungi make toxic chemicals to attack each other, since they're competing for the same plant resources, and those same toxins also protect against insects that might otherwise eat the plant.

But how and why do endophytes improve drought tolerance? Unlike mycorrhizal fungi, which extend out into the soil, most endophytes are entirely inside the plant. So it's not as if they can pull more water out of the soil. Sure, they can produce chemicals that mimic plant hormones, thereby manipulating the plant to make more (or fewer) roots or to open (or close) the stomata through which water evaporates from leaves.

But it's hard for me to believe that:
1) a fungus infecting a plant is a better judge of how many roots a plant needs than the plant is
2) that the fungus would put the plant's interests ahead of its own.

It's a mystery. But that's what science does: solve mysteries. Stay tuned.


Comments

I cam across your blog while doing research on another subject, but I had to comment on the Forbes requirement to gain access to your Google contacts. I noticed the same thing, but what was more amazing was that there were over 200 previous comments of people who had no problem with this. You have the talent of expressing complex ideas simply, thanks.

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