František Baluška: Evolutionary Science 'Stuck' on Wrong Track, Situation 'Out of Control'

04/13/2015 06:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015


University of Bonn cell biologist František Baluška says evolutionary science is dangerously "stuck" on the gene-centered track and that "[t]he situation is now out of control."

Baluška, one of the world's leading experts on plant roots says further that "we [humans, animals] are really secondary organisms in relation to plants."

Plants arrive much later in evolutionary history than animals -- hundreds of millions of years later. And Baluška thinks they arose as a result of the symbiosis of fungi and algae. He argues, contrary to the standard view, that rooted plants are not "advanced algae."

František Baluška, a native of Slovakia, is founder and editor-in-chief of two scientific journals, Plant Signaling & Behavior and Communicative & Integrative Biology (Landes Bioscience, publisher) where more of his provocative thinking can be found. Freedom in science is crucial, he says, and we need "open-minded" journals.

A decade ago Baluška began organizing international conferences on plant neurobiology as well. His thinking about "plant intelligence" has been partly inspired by Lynn Margulis, specifically her paper "The Conscious Cell."

The theme of plant intelligence was more recently explored in a magazine article by Michael Pollan in which Baluška is cited as well as Darwin's 1880 observation that the plant root tip "acts like the brain of some of the lower animals."

In our conversation that follows, Baluška touches on the role of viruses in plant evolution and in evolution in general. Baluška says "[s]ynapses in very early evolution may have been induced by repetitive viral infections" because viruses can manipulate cells to form cell-cell adhesions.

He describes the cell membrane and energy flow through the cell "as important, or even more important than the genetics."

František Baluška's Ph.D. in plant biology and physiology and his undergraduate degree in plant physiology are both from Comenius University, Slovakia. He did his post-doctoral work in plant biology and physiology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where he is now a member (external). In 2007, František Baluška received Slovakia's highest scientific title, Doctor Scientiarium from Comenius University. He became a full professor at Comenius University in 2008 and is currently a lecturer and researcher (tenured) at the University of Bonn's Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany.

Among his awards are Royal Society Fellowship (1992); Humboldt Foundation Fellowship (University of Bonn, 1994). He is the author or co-author of 160 scientific papers and an editor of 10 books (Springer), among them: Communication in Plants: Neuronal Aspects of Plant Life; Signaling in Plants; Structure and Function of Roots; Cell-Cell Channels; Actin: A Dynamic Framework for Multiple Plant Cell Functions; and Long-Distance Systemic Signaling and Communication in Plants. In 2005, Baluška co-founded the Society of Plant Neurobiology.

My interview with František Baluška follows.

Suzan Mazur: You've characterized life as "inherently invasive, infective and collaborative." Would you define it a bit more?

František Baluška: Life begins when a system starts to be a self-aware independent agent. It strives to protect its independence. The system has feedback images that constantly give it information that it has taken from the environment in which it is functioning. It is self-aware and able to preserve its integrity. The system is able to recognize itself from its environment and sustain itself. Because the environment somehow is working -- the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- the system must be able to do some work in order to preserve the system. I'm not a physicist but the system's speed of the energy flow is also an important issue.

Suzan Mazur: What is your understanding of what the gene is? Does it exist as an entity, and if so, what is its origin?

František Baluška: I am also not a geneticist, but for me the gene is just a human concept. The gene is not really there as a coherent agent with its own interest. I'm not convinced the gene satisfies my view of life. To me gene without membrane is non-living matter. There is no flow of energy through the gene.

Suzan Mazur: What is your understanding of a genetic code then?

František Baluška: The genetic code is essential. But it is like a library for our human civilization, powerful information storage medium. The genome is important to sustain life but it is not controlling the organism on its own.

Suzan Mazur: You've said regarding plants that microorganisms and fungi are the driving force behind the evolution of plant synapses and other neuronal aspects of higher plants.

František Baluška: The important structure for life, for cellular life is a membrane. The energy flow is important and this is possible to be controlled and organized by a membrane. For me the membranes are more important, membranes are central. Without membranes, genes and DNA are not relevant for life. Two membranes from the adjacent cells placed together due to viral/bacterial/fungal infections and/or symbiosis start to function together in synaptic communicative mode.

Suzan Mazur: You've said "these neuronal similarities between plants and animals are the results of convergent evolution," and you've also said that "we need to reconsider the evolutionary origin of neuroscience." Would you say more about this?

František Baluška: My point of view is that, in biological evolution, cells are the most important systems. Eukaryotic cells have their limiting plasma membrane. Then they have membranes of their organelles. They have a recycling system of vesicles, which is like the brain's synaptic system. The recycling system of vesicles at their plasma membranes works also in part in the same way in plants. It is mostly important for social cell-cell communication.

Suzan Mazur: In your view, has a paradigm shift already happened away from gene-centered neo-Darwinism except for a formal recognition by the neo-Darwinists?

František Baluška: I think this will take at least 20 years. Because science is largely still in the gene-centered age.

Suzan Mazur: Politically, but do you think the evidence is there for a paradigm shift?

František Baluška: Of course the evidence is there. But how the funding is distributed, how the grants are awarded is still completely controlled by the gene-centered community.

Suzan Mazur: What is the danger in not recognizing this shift formally, particularly by the medical and pharmaceutical industries?

František Baluška: There are several dangers, but most important is that we are not on the right track with our science. Science never works properly when the whole engine is stuck. Neo-Darwinism has gotten too powerful in its dominance of this field. Neo-Darwinian gene-centered science is wrong. The situation is now out of control. Science should be free. It is not free at the moment.

Suzan Mazur: Is the failure of gene-centered neo-Darwinism evident in television commercials pushing pills for certain medical problems which are always accompanied by a disclaimer saying that ingesting the pill could also cause 25 other medical problems, side effects?

František Baluška: We are very far away from understanding the complexity of the whole system. It is dangerous to say we know because we've found all the genes there are to be found in humans and sequenced them. It is dangerous to say we know everything when we know almost nothing. The basis of disease is much more complex. Our cells are so complex. There is much more information stored in structures, in membranes... There's a lot of information stored in carbohydrates. The genome is not the whole story.

Suzan Mazur: With the understanding that microbes transfer information laterally and every which way and that humans and other animals engulf and are engulfed by such microorganisms -- should we still be putting our focus on a vertical transmission of information?

František Baluška: The problem is that for neo-Darwinism communication is not an issue in evolutionary theory. The reality is that there is communication between cells on all levels even in our own bodies. There is a lot of communication that is not just in the brain -- all the cells are communicating. Also with the bacteria, which are in and around our bodies. This communication is shaping evolution. In the neo-Darwinist theory there is no way to explain this. Communication has never been a topic for neo-Darwinists.

Suzan Mazur: Scientists now think plants arrived everywhere on Earth about 350 million years ago well after the appearance of animals, with flowering and fruit plants emerging 150 million years ago -- is that correct?

František Baluška: Yes, flowering and fruit plants are not so old in evolutionary terms and are much more robust than animals.

If animals disappeared from Earth, plants would be okay, they could survive. But if plants disappeared, I don't think humans and animals would survive. We are really like secondary organisms in relation to plants. We are dependent on them completely.

Suzan Mazur: Fascinating. What evolutionary improvements do you see in plants over animals?

František Baluška: They can handle energy independently because they have the ability to make photosynthesis.

Suzan Mazur: But did plants arrive spontaneously 350 million years ago? Is that the way you see it?

František Baluška: No, higher plants are the result of very long evolution. Plants are evolving rapidly, they have not finished their evolution. They are still improving.

I don't agree with the current theory, which is that advanced algae invaded land and somehow continued to survive and evolved into plants. I think that there was an intermediate lichen-like symbiotic state of fungi and algae, followed by complete merging of fungi and algae. Plants are a result of this merging.

Suzan Mazur: Is there any hint of what life might be emerging next on Earth?

František Baluška: This is something the neo-Darwinists never accepted, the symbiosis process. Living together. If there is a complete merging of two symbiotic partners, then you cannot understand the issue. After many millions of years, traces of such merging are almost completely obliterated, so you cannot find out how it happened.

I think there have been several mergings in evolution, but we will never be able to prove this. Of course, if you have symbiosis not followed by merging, like mitochondria and chloroplasts, then it is possible to prove it with DNA and RNA, etc. But without DNA and RNA, this symbiotic theory would never be accepted. Experts who study evolution are not prone to accept the symbiotic concept.

Suzan Mazur: But from what we see around us now, do you have any thoughts about what might be emerging next in evolution?

František Baluška: The biosphere is still emerging. Presently, for example, there's a clear co-evolution between higher plants and the mycorrhiza fungi. Mycorrhiza fungi are not able to live independently so they need a plant in order to germinate and to live.

Almost all plants living free in nature are interconnected by this mycorrhiza network of fungi. Maybe in a million years they will fuse again with these mycorrhiza fungi. Who knows? I don't know. It seems to be repetitive, fusion of fungi and plants in evolution.

Suzan Mazur: Would you explain briefly the importance of the polarity phenomenon in plants and some invertebrates and how polarity affects orientation and healing, etc.?

František Baluška: Polarity is linked to communication. Plant cells are organized in so-called cell files through their polarity. They have a recycling apparatus very similar to the synaptic recycling apparatus in brains. There are recycling vesicles that connect functionally two cells in one file. This recycling apparatus is very important for cell-cell communication, very fast communication between the cells and the files. The communication is also similar to that in our brain, based on synaptic vesicles, action potentials, but also it is based on the exchange of some signal transmitting molecules or hormonal molecules. The polarity in plants is very important in order to allow our cells to organize themselves into communicating cell files.

Suzan Mazur: You look at the hydra in one of your papers, "Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology." How does the hydra know to put the anterior part of its structure down into the sea bed?

František Baluška: The hydra has an opening called a mouth, which is not inserted into the sea bed. This opening is actually an anus. It is the anterior end that is buried.

Suzan Mazur: But how does it know to put the anterior end into the sea bed?

František Baluška: The larvae of hydra search with their heads, maybe at some point in evolution they were searching for nutrition in the sea bed. When they weren't finding nutrition so easily, perhaps they started to settle. In the hydra life cycle the first thing that happens is that the larvae settle, the brain is completing absorbing. They settle all the time with their heads down.

Suzan Mazur: Bejan's Constructal Law says that it's all about the flow finding the best way to keep flowing. The hydra roots itself with the anterior section and opens another side to the ocean. With trees it's about the release of moisture from the Earth via the roots back into the atmosphere.

František Baluška: Bejan's is an interesting point of view. But there must be some need for the hydra larvae to settle. They were freely moving organisms and suddenly they start to settle.

The difference between animals and plants is totally obliterated when animals settle. Not just the hydra, but corals. Corals have all the features of plants, they even make photosynthesis.

Suzan Mazur: Regarding the hydra, one evolutionary scientist made the comment to me that the hydra has amazing plasticity. . . . But he said, the hydra has not evolved for 600 million years. Do you see it that way?

František Baluška: I would not believe that it was not evolving at all any more.

Suzan Mazur: It has to evolve to stay relevant, to stay alive, doesn't it? Communicating with its environment, making all kinds of changes.

František Baluška: Yes, evolution does not stop. Even if the organism looks the same morphologically, it does not mean that it is the same. It constantly responds to a changing environment.

Suzan Mazur: Do you consider viruses alive?

František Baluška: This is a very important issue and very important question. I think they are alive when they are inside of the cell associated with membranes. Without membranes, there is no life. . . .

Suzan Mazur: What are your thoughts about a role for a virus or viroid-like entity at the start of life?

František Baluška: It is not possible to prove. There will all the time be discussions. . . . Viruses are active in changing many cells. They're very active and they manipulate membranes. For viruses, membranes are a source of energy. They need energy for replication.

Suzan Mazur: They are also inside of us and all around us along with bacteria.

František Baluška: Yes. It might be possible that synapses evolved due to viral infections because the virus inside of cells needs to replicate and to infect adjacent cells. They manipulate adjacent cells to form cell-cell adhesions (known also as viral synapses) to spread from cell-to-cell. Synapses in very early evolution may have been induced by repetitive viral infections.

Without viruses we cannot understand evolution at all [emphasis added].

Suzan Mazur: But if a virus is not alive, how does it get inside the membrane of an animal or plant cell? Doesn't this indicate a striving to sustain itself, its integrity?

František Baluška: By attaching to the outside leaflet plasma membrane, it gets access to the biological membrane and starts to act on its own by manipulating cellular membranes and their energy flows. First it typically induces endocytosis, or membrane fusion, to enter eukaryotic cells. Inside of cells, viruses travel and replicate within membrane-enclosed vesicles. They manipulate these vesicles also in order to enter into adjacent cells.

Suzan Mazur: In your 2011 paper "Microorganisms and filamentous fungi drive evolution of plant synapses," in the section "From Microbial Conscious Cells to Plant Consciousness?" -- you make the following interesting point: "To what end these possible characteristics of microorganisms advanced plant intelligence is unknown." That's fascinating to consider. Would you comment further?

František Baluška: This idea is coming from the Lynn Margulis paper "The Conscious Cell" (Ann. N. Y.,Acad. Sci. 929: 55-70, 2001) in which she linked microbial consciousness and mind to microtubules.

The neuronal system is very complex. I don't want to go into it too deeply but, for example, fungi are all the time interacting with the roots. Fungi and microbes are present abundantly in soil. The roots are all the time in contact with them. For example, the mycorrhiza communicate with the roots effectively and this somehow feeds into neuronal plant evolution, so the root system gets more and more complex.

Plants began with very tiny roots or no roots at all -- higher plant root systems represent relatively recent innovation in plant evolution.

Suzan Mazur: It's fascinating to see what you're discovering, some of which you're publishing in your own journals: Plant Signaling & Behavior and Communicative & Integrative Biology.

František Baluška: We need more journals that are open-minded. Because science must be free. And this is the problem with some of these political issues. They try to shape the science.

Suzan Mazur: Yes, the idea is to make a profit. They've got bankers on the board of directors who don't know the scientific material, etc. To access some individual articles costs more than the price of a book in hard cover.

František Baluška: But it's starting to get better and better. We do see many new journals being launched these days.

Suzan Mazur: Right, where articles can be read for their ideas without all the mind-numbing technical terms that even scientists complain they often cannot read.

Would you like to make a final point?

František Baluška: Any theory of evolution must take into consideration the communication between cells, sensory aspects, behavior and cognition. For me the membranes and the energy flows through the membranes are as important, or even more important, than the genetics, DNA. Without membranes there is no life on Earth.

Suzan Mazur: Thank you so much.