Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We are all individuals; I am not!

The first headline for this post was; The thin line of living as an individual in a population vs as part of an organism.

We humans do both, we exchange molecules all the time, that affect you, me and everybody else. We exchange virions, bacteria, hormons and so forth just by being in the vicinity of each other. Just like cells talk to each other. Or just like ants behave. The live in a chemical world, if you "speak ant" you speak in chemicals. Where is the fine line between the indivdual and an population as an organism? If you see a good soccer team play, do they not sometimes behave as if they were an organism rather than a bunch of individuals?

in regard to the newly published ant genomes. Do you think that it is a long step?
Just follow my lead. I will refer to epigenetics and how what we are is more than what we think.

The publications in PNAS (and it was reported in the Swedish paper Dagens nyheter- where as always one tries to simplify science so much even to a specialist has to think before understanding what they actually are talking about), has not only sequenced the genomes of several ants. They analyzed the epigenetics. I will not go into why these specific ants were chosen above others but refer to findings of epigenetics in the study.

In an earlier posting I wrote something about epigenetics. As every cell in the body has the same DNA, how come a skin cell looks and behaves different from say a muscle cell or a brain cell? The answer is epigenetics. The DNA contains the codes for every protein that every cell needs, but the genes that code for these proteins are not available unless you need them. Complicated? You are more likely to find curry in an Indian kitchen than an Italian right?
The intricate step of differentiation, when a cell becomes more specialized, is marked by a change in epigenetics. It is a wide range of methods to distinguish which DNA you want to use and which genes you do not need. Therefore the genes of a brain cell that codes for brain specific proteins will be epigenetically silenced in a skin cell, while the genes that code for skin specific proteins will be epigenetically enhanced.
Epigenetics is an umbrella, it refers to chemically modifications of the DNA base Cytosine by adding a methylgroup to one of it’s carbons. It also refers to chemically modifications of the DNA organisation, and some people include antisense RNA.

So what does this have to do with ants? Well, first of all ants and bees share some traits, they have specific “castes” with specific roles. You are a worker or a queen. The study mention that early epigentical changes at the larvae stage will define your future as a queen or a worker.
The ants, although an individual, are at the same time regulating themselves as if they were a big organism.

So what about humans? There are some discussions in the field that epigenetics play a big role in how we program ourselves to fear certain things and not fear other. This is of course very to study as we cannot take brain cells from living humans and analyze the chemical modifications of their DNA: Neither can we analyze the changes in brain cell growth and neural connections that arises with change thought behaviour.
One study of monkeys showed, against assumptions that it was not the male with the highest level of testosterone that become alpha male. The one who wins the title develop a higher level of testosterone after he becomes alpha male, not before. I have heard that this might be true in several studies but now I only found one on google.

We are individuals, yet we are connected in many many ways, and often in ways that we are of conscious of. Perhaps fake it till you make it is not such a bad idea, fake it until you imprint it on your epigenetical level. Then you have made it!  Now I am going to say something that I have wide empirical experience of and heard from several teacher in personal development field- but there is not a shred of medical data or evidence to attach it to. I just like to find parallels, and I mention this as a poetical parallel.
This is why you cannot just think yourself into new behaviour, you have to act it out first and then the body will be able to make the necessary changes. The monkey did not think himself into alpha male position. He got there and the body adapted to the new situation. Obviously there is an organic shift here that responds to a change in behaviour and a change in his social environment.  Thus fake it till you make it.
We are not differentiated skin cells for a whole lifetime, we can actually change and shift our identities, going from one class to antoher for example. We are optimized to be flexible. I will extend on this poetical parallel some other time.

If you want to know about the ants, the scientists are trying to limit their numbers to lower their impact on the environment. As the ants is very poison resistant, and poison is bad for the environment although for some reason I do not believe that this an object for them, one way to affect the number of ants would be to chemically lower the numbers of queens in a colony. 

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