Friday, January 01, 2010


Thanks to John Effay for bringing this piece about the apparent 'evolution' of prions to my attention. I loove this sort of shit.

As I've mentioned before in a past post: viruses aren't actually living things; they're mostly aggregates of DNA/RNA and proteins. However, they do 'evolve' - change through time due to environmental pressures (natural selection) - and this gives the illusion that they are alive in some way. Scientists and writers often talk about viruses as if they were alive - it's an easy habit to get into - I think that the presence of one or other nucleic acid (the chemicals of "Life" ye gods!) in their structure-system and the fact that they use them to piggyback a host cell's replicative systems adds to this illusion; it makes them seem as if they are 'parasites' of some sort - albeit v. minimalist ones. If they are parasites, then they're chemical ones.

I find it a lot more exciting that they're not alive; that systems can be (are) self-organising.

Now, prions are purely protein-based; there are no nucleic acids involved. They're the next step down from viruses in terms of complexity. They don't replicate (make copies of themselves) in the same way as viruses; instead they convert the non-toxic analogue of themselves into the toxic/'infectious'/biologically disruptive prion form by inducing three-dimensional changes in the structure of their benign protein-cousin. It's like a game of Tig: "Touch: you're It. Touch: you're It." and so on. So, what we see as an 'infection' is actually a mass stereochemical change - a mexican wave - that sweeps through a protein population. Chemical shapeshifting.

Of course, this happens all the time in chemical systems, but we only notice it when it manifests itself as illness. What has now been identified is that, perhaps, there are more than two possible prion shape-states in a population - that there are other other forms which occur in far lower numbers, but these become the predominant form when they are moved to a new/different chemical environment which allows them to flourish (natural selection). They seem to 'adapt' or 'evolve' - to take over - when circumstances allow.

What has actually evolved here is language - the word "evolve" has itself evolved over time to absorb new implications, to include, for example, sub-sets of biological matter rather than entire living things. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Charles Weissmann, who said: "On the face of it, you have exactly the same process of mutation and adaptive change in prions as you see in viruses." However, I think my reservations to that statement are mainly in the churlish realm of semantics, though, not bio-science.

What's so surprising (to me, anyway) is the way that scientists seem sufficiently surprised by these findings to make statements like "This means that this pattern of Darwinian evolution appears to be universally active." Well, duh. Darwinian principles do seem to apply on a multitude of levels any system - (biological, chemical, physical, social, theoretical) - where entities within a population in that system can exist in varying 'states' of potentiality - it really wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to find they were universal.

But maybe we - as living, sentient things - are just trying to project our own 'livingness' onto The Inert. Anthropomorphising the universe by reimagining it in our own image. Maybe that's the only way we can make sense of stuff.

Still, if we do live in a Multiverse or an infinite n-D bubble-matrix or whatever we're calling it this week, then might not universes themselves be subject to Darwinian space-time principles? Only the most stable and robust will persist and become populated with physical matter.

Anyone who's tracked the changes in UK Bass music thru D n B, Speed-Garage, UKG, Grime, Dubstep, Funky...can see Darwinian responses to environmental changes (Too 'blokey', too 'girly', Police busts, changes in drug preferences, smoking bans, too 'blokey' (repeat: cycle)). Is this not the basis of the Reynolds-Fisher Dancemusic GrandadNuum? We even use the world "evolution", as if Music carries memes, tropes, ancestral DNA and is itself alive.

Which, of course, it is.


At 7:35 pm, Blogger Dominic Zero said...

Blimey. And a Happy NY to you too..

At 8:14 pm, Blogger I am not Kek-w said...

It's not actually a 'new''s still the old one; it's just evolved....

At 10:04 pm, Blogger Dominic Zero said...

I see. That makes some kind of twisted sense & explains why things are still shit but have changed colour and shape.

At 11:30 pm, Blogger I am not Kek-w said...

Ah, you've noticed it too.

Yeovil's gone kinda orange-y and soft. Like a ha'penny chew.

At 6:20 pm, Blogger Jason Gusmann said...

yikes. i will not refer to a virus as a living thing in my fiction ever again. or at least until i forget. again.

At 4:50 pm, Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

My brother Andrew has a standard rant to the effect that all the traditional physicists were really bothered by quantum mechanics because they had always believed that their mathematical models were approximations of an underlying continuity, and quantum mechanics said that the universe was a discrete, rather than a continuous, entity. Andrew, on the other hand, as a computer scientist, always presumed reality to be discrete, with continuity always an illusion built of sufficiently small discrete bits. As such, he finds it straightforwardly intuitive that matter~data and life~iterative algorithm. He's not too interested in drawing a line between living and lifelike.

This all makes retrospective sense to me too, although (as I am a hacker and not a computer scientist and as I am a less subtle intellect altogether) I would never have thought to put it like that.


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