Contemporary biology has met mythology, and as fate would have it, Tomasz Sitarz was there to see it. A story emerged about competition, and about a battle in every cubic centimetre of the soil, but also about the grand alliance between fungi and plants.
In the beginning was the seed.
He said: “Let there be water, an environment for chemical reactions and a solvent for all of life.”
And the seed, placed in the black soil, swelled with the water it took in and took its first breath. The enigmatic emanations of elemental life energy, the lipases, amylases and proteases, attacked the stored substances, cutting the chains of their polymers, breaking the handcuffs that shackled metabolism, which once begun will last until the end of time.
He said: “Let there be light, which will be absorbed by chlorophyll, and let the energy of each quantum of light be food for green plants.” And the shell of the cosmic egg broke into two directions. Toward Inanna, the lady of the sunrise, were taken the leaves, in which photosynthetic pigments capture the energy of the sun. Toward Ereshkigal, queen of the Land of No Return, through a labyrinth of grains of soil, the root writhed, sniffing out water. “No tree shall grow to the heavens if its roots don’t reach down to hell,” he declared, observing the first motions of the seed, and seeing that the rays of the sun and the drops of water wouldn’t be enough to feed the tree of all trees, he established the lesser gods.
“Earth, Mother of All! You have taken into your loins the seed; do not let it die. Sate it with your water and your warmth, and if this isn’t enough, send your sons and daughters to nourish the sprout of creation. Let the thirsty root grow down, let the towers of the stems push heavenward, let the hungry leaves cover the world with shade, and let the fruits be food for all living things.” Mother heard the entreaties and convened a chthonic assembly.
On the first day, Mother said: “Let there be nitrogen. Let there be the rhizobia, Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium. Let them grow over the entirety of the roots, creating nodules on them and increasing their absorptive surface. Let them fix nitrogen from the air and with the sword of nitrogenase cut the hard triple bonds in the N2 molecule, which the plant itself can’t cut. Let the nitrogen transform into ammonium, and let this become soluble and be absorbed by the plant. Let it become the stuff of amino acids, and let all proteins come from them, enzymes of the metabolic machinery. The power of metabolism will give the amino acids new life as sugars and nucleotides, which will come together in the nucleic acids.”
On the second day, Mother said: “Let there be phosphorous. Let there be the bacterium Bacillus megaterium and the fungus Aspergillus terreus. Let the acidity of the soil increase, thus dissolving phosphorous, and let them chelate, taking it into the soil, so that it can become a building material for plants. They will also produce phosphatases, which will tear phosphorous from the dead remains of creatures, digesting carcasses and bringing their material back into circulation, so that water will always fall on the mill wheel of existence. And let this phosphorous reach to the metabolism of the plants, where it will build into the nucleic acids and proteins and let it be, in the form of ATP, a storehouse of the energy that comes from breath.”
On the third day, Mother said: “Let there be siderophores. Let the bacteria Pseudomonas fluorescens create low molecular-weight substances, which will bind iron and change its form from insoluble to soluble. Let the siderophores be dispersed into the soil, among the innumerable grains of universes. The bound iron will reach to the plants and become an element of many oxygenating and reducing enzymes. Let it also enter the composition of the pigments, which will determine the colour of the plant and the efficiency of its photosynthesis. Let the soil become iron-poor, and let the plants have priority over other organisms in absorbing it. Without easily accessible iron in the environment, let all pathogens be hungry, incapable of reproducing and powerless in their attempts to infect seedlings.”
On the fourth day, Mother said: “Let there be phytohormones. Let the Agrobacterium, Streptomyces, Alcaligenes produce them and release them into the environment. When a plant takes them on and submits to their power, they will support its growth. Let the gibberellins induce blossoming and elongation. Let the auxins stimulate cell division, the growth of adventitious roots and the emergence of fruit. Let abscisic acid regulate the ageing of the plant and bring it into a state of rest. Let organisms produce a whole range of elements, and let them assist the plant so that it can serve its underground gods. And let the boundaries between the participants in the miracle of life blur, and let it no longer be clear who is the servant, and who the master.”
On the fifth day, Mother said: “Let plant immunity develop. Let the Trichoderma harzianum fungus induce it and bring it into a state of readiness, in which it will be resistant to pathogenic creatures. Let the genes related to resistance be active, let their expression become a fact. Let the wall dividing plants from their environment thicken and let it be terrifying to insects and parasites. And let the endless war between the gods endure. Competition, stratagems and betrayal: let these be the methods of battle. Let Pseudomonas produce antibiotics and let it digest and destroy other bacteria. Let fungicides lay waste the ranks of the fungi. Let lysozyme, chitinase and cellulase spread through the soil and spread their cells everywhere. Let viruses die under the heel of non-specific immunological reactions and changes in the environment’s acidity. Let death be everywhere, constant and unceasing, death without end. And from it rebirth, new life, new endurance and new death, because this will not be the last day. There shall be no apocalypse or a full stop at the end of the sentence; the cycle of creation and deconstruction for all time.”
Dusk fell, and Mother began to muse. Is this what she should build the entire living world on? On constant destruction, war and competition? Is this not too cruel a vision? Will the fruit of the blood-nourished tree not pass on bitterness, rather than giving sweetness to the world? Can there not be Kindness?
So, on the sixth day she said: “Let there be mycorrhiza. Let the fungal host Glomeromycota raze the wall dividing the plant’s root from the soil and let them become one, composed of two. Let the hyphae of the fungus grow into the plant and twine around it like a shroud. Mutualistically, for their common benefit, they will endure and evolve together. The mycelium shall absorb water for the plant, which shall feed it with the sweet nectar of glucose. The fungus shall send enzymes into the soil, toxic for the voracious nematodes that want to bite into the roots. The mycorrhiza shall also harm insects, as it will activate the plant’s immune response, making it resistant. They shall modulate the soil’s acidity, thus making it easier for the plant to feed itself, but also to affect the population of all other kinds of microorganisms, introducing harmony and not allowing any of them the pathology of dominance. Let the mycelium become storage for water, from which the tree will draw during drought, and let there be no crop failure or famine. Let the gossamer threads of the mycelium and the roots intertwine prolifically in the tapestry, pregnant with possibility, of jointly becoming fungus and tree, which shall expand over the entire living world. Each participant in the miracle shall be indispensable, and let neither feel unneeded.”
On the seventh day, He sat down beneath a tree with Mother, and both knew that the shade under the leaves was good. They watched the tree of all trees, together with all the processes taking place under and above the surface of the soil. The light fell on the leaves, and induced chlorophyll molecules in the chloroplasts. In turn it transferred energy for awakening to further building blocks of the photosynthetic trail fuelled by carbon dioxide, from which sugar was born. The tree kept one measure of sugar for itself, so that in the process of respiration it could create energy and carbon dioxide, which returned to the atmosphere, and after passing down countless roads would return to the tree as food. The sugar was also connected into other metabolic pathways, where it became amino acids, hormones, fats. The tree gave another measure of sugar to the roots, so they could pass it to the soil. And there it became food for the lesser gods, who in this way received payment for their services and were equal to the tree. They saw this tangle of interactions and knew that it was just.
“Must everything be built on the foundation of destruction, passing away?” Mother asked.
“There is no alternative. What has been born must die,” He replied.
“And me? And you?”
“There is no alternative.”
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
A high five for “Przekrój”? Or maybe a ten? By supporting PRZEKRÓJ Foundation, you support humour, reliability and charm.
Choose your donation