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28 May, 2011

The Gospel of Thallus

Flaccid Thallus

In writing the last post, I learned the word thallus. It's the scientific term for the undifferentiated tissue comprising the bodies of kelp and other algae, fungi, and as you've probably guessed, Myxogastria, the predators of the slime mold world (for which I carry a minor obsession). Getting over my initial disappointment with the word having nothing to do with phallus (except when mushrooms look like penises), I realized that it's a pretty interesting concept.

The level at which thalloid tissue is undifferentiated is cellular. No fundamental difference occurs between one cell and another in kelp, even though the plant appears to have roots, a stipe, leaves,...all the parts that in a more complex plant have their own cell type. The kelp thallus is the entire plant, one kind of cell from where it grabs the ocean floor, sometimes stretching hundreds of feet to the tip of the leaf-which-is-not-a-leaf. It's all thallus, baby.

Roots and trunk? Nope, thalloid "holdfasts"
Organisms lacking cell differentiation are considered primitive by primates, but there is an elegance in their design. Thallus-bodied species create analogs of all the necessary organs and structures from a single type of cell. Efficient and clever, if you ask me. Why bother with complexity and all the risks that come with it if you can replicate the effect with simple building blocks? In the human world, the power to turn a lump of undifferentiated clay into a living being is considered divine, but somehow when something similar happens in the algal or fungal worlds, it's just "primitive."

Midrib and leaf? Huh-uh, just more thallus.

From ancient sects to cyber sex, humans have worshiped the phallus, but rarely the thallus, even though it has procreated for eons before the first complex erection aroused or amused or horrified a female. We've populated our mythologies and comic books with shape changers, but show no appreciation for the humble thallus, adopting the forms it needs to, changing as the slime mold does from something shapeless and amoebic to flagellic and plasmoid, even going zygotic and making fruiting bodies when it gets in the mood. We presume superiority, but will be outlasted by these simple beings.

1 comment:

  1. Yes but how do these undifferentiated cell building blocks "know" what position to take so that the overall structure is created and maintained? I was under the mistaken impression that each kelp was actually a colony comprised of single-cell algae but, in doing the research that brought me to your blog, I have found that biologists consider them to be multi-celled organisms. This page is the most helpful I've come across so far, thanks.

    Fascinating and puzzling thing, life. :-)