from Tuesday, August 26, 2003 2:00-3:00 PM Eastern
© by International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design
Our guest today is Guenter Albrecht-Buehler.
Guenter is the Robert Laughlin Rea Professor of Cell
and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University. He received his
Ph.D. in physics from the Technische Universitaet, Munich in 1972.
Subsequently, Dr. Albrecht-Buehler did post-doctoral work on cell
motility at the Friedrich Miescher Institute, Basel Switzerland from
Guenter's work for the past two decades has centered
around what he calls cellular intelligence.
Guenter also has interest in a unique form of art that he may be interested
in telling you about...
Hi, everybody! As Micah said my scientific interest is the question
of cell intelligence.
I don't mean cellular creativity or consciousness, just their ability
to process signals and integrate them into actions.
At present most biologists believe that molecular interactions lead
to cell functions. I believe the opposite: Cell functions are generated
by a central processing organ (=centrosome?) and lead to molecular
We have always accepted that the central control organ of an organism
directly or indirectly tells the molecules of the rest of the body
what to do in order to generate the myriad of its biological actions.
Only in the case of cells most biologists believe differently. They
think that the interaction of the macromolecules inside a cell generates
the myriad of cell functions, and that studying them will explain
the cell functions. I believe the opposite. Just like in the case
of metazoa, the molecules of a cell are being told by a central information
processing organelle what to do in order to generate cell functions.
As you can see from my website, for the past 30 years I have tried
to analyze the 'chain of command' in the case of cell motility. According
to this work, the 'brain' of the cell (=centrosome?) collects visual
information with its embedded 'eyes' (=centrioles), sends commands
along 'nerves' (=microtubules) to the 'muscles' (autonomous cortical
units, called microplasts)
that initiate the molecular interactions that ultimately lead to extensions,
ruffling, blebbing, retractions, etc.
Do you need more provocation for questions?
Biopolymers correspond to linear digital sequences of monomeric "symbols." These
monmeric sequences determine tertiary structure (functional shape).
The shape takes form through weak hydrogen bonding only after the sequence
is "set in stone" by covalent bonds.
How did nature establish these covalently bound sequences so as to
produce so many needed functional shapes?
I don't think any body knows the answer. Why is the sequence of actin
this particular and not another base pair sequence? In my opinion
this is the most important question that molecular biology should
ask. But we have no answer yet beyond some so-called consensus sequences
of functional groups.
My finding that mammalian cells detect and seek out microscopic light
sources that emit near-infrared light pulses begged the question
of the natural source of such light pulses. Since no part of the inanimate
environment of cells emits such pulses, the most likely suspects
were the cells themselves.
If so, we would have found a completely novel, long-distance communication
system between cells. Imitating it to influence cell behavior could
open completely new, highly specific and non-invasive approaches
to manipulating cells during development, wound healing, tumor growth
Guenter, could you give us a taste of some of your most recent findings? You
mentioned to me via email that you might be changing your views a bit? Could
For the past 2 years (with the support of DARPA) I have searched for
cellular emitters of near-infrared pulses, hoping that the cells
contain specialized emitter-organelles. My favorite candidates were
I am fairly sure now that such emitter-organelles do not exist in mammalian
cells. Therefore, it seems that the cells 'see' each other the same
way most other organisms see each other: in the scattered ambient
light. In the case of cells that would be the near-infrared portion
of the black-body radiation of the 37oC warm cellular environment.
At the present time I am testing the proposition that the cells 'see'
each other's many hundred perinuclear and rapidly fluctuating cell
organelles scattering the ambient near-infrared light.
Are the messages sent by the central processing organ merely probabilistic
combinations (stochastic ensembles of monmeric sequence), or does
their specific sequencing matter in transmitting a "meaningful" message
through the channel?
Judging by the highly targeted responses of cells to other cells, light
sources, topology of their environment etc. the messages cannot be
probabilistic. I believe they will turn out to be a language in their
What do you think about hyper-mutation?
I am not sure what you mean by that. Could you explain it a bit more?
Would you say that the ability for some bacteria to hyper-mutate in
response to a challenge from the environment is an expression of
some form of cell intelligence
It probably is an expression of genomic intelligence, i.e. the processing
and integration of signals that are exogenous to the genome. transpositions
may be another. The cell intelligence I have been studying for some
30 years is actually a form of cytoplasmic intelligence.
How wide of a readership have your ideas gotten in the biological community,
what has been the reception of your work, and are there others that
are pursuing similar research?
I have received a number of honors, titles, invitations to speak, if
that's what you mean. Nobody else is working in this field as far
as I can see. It's not a molecular problem and, thus, not fundable
Language is a form of algorithm or program. Each symbol selection represents
a decision-node choice commitment (switch-setting) made with the
intent of communicating a message. Don't we need a naturalistic mechanism
to explain how these selections were made prior to selection of after-the-fact
What do you mean by 'naturalistic mechanism' ? A physical phenomenon
that leads inevitable to the origin of languages?
Well, in the analogy, leads to the derivation of functional covalent
We may be caught here in circular definitions. "Functional' requires
a biological context which, in turn, requires biologically functional
systems. I think, I know what you mean, though. And, as I said it is
the central, unanswered question of modern biology.
If you want, I give you an analogy from the history of physics.
Fraunhofer discovered in the 19th century that light emission was discontinuous.
Spectra had lines. For the following 4-5 decades people were measuring
the emission lines of just about every atom in just about every state
However, nobody asked Algorithm's question: Why are the lines discrete?
Why does sodium vapor emit these and not other lines? Still, people
happily archiving the lines just as we today archive the nucleotide
sequences of so many genomes without being able to read more than
3% (=structural genes).
Algorithm, you know what it took to answer your question in this case,
don't you? Planck, De Broglie, Heisenberg, Schroedinger and many
others had to give birth to quantum mechanics
What are the ranges and/or types of cellular intelligence that you've encountered
either in your own lab work or through reading of other research? In other
words, could you give us a general sense of what the limitations and capabilities
of the cell might be? This is for those of us who aren't necessarily cell
biologists and hesitate at the idea of "cellular intelligence." As
a philosopher of mind, I'd love to consider the cell as a basic form of "mind" but
how do I get traction on that idea?
As I said to Nelson, there is intelligence everywhere in biology. Where
are signals not received and processed in to purposeful action? Ant
colonies act very intelligently without any ant knowing what they
are doing. There is intelligence in the interaction between nations.
I can't help to see it everywhere. Micah, that [last part]gets too
close for comfort to the question of consciousness. I have to pass.
What do you think of defining "cellular intelligence" in
terms of making optimal switch-settings to the end of producing needed
The intelligence goes far beyond metabolic success. Most of all there
is differentiation, replication, defense, functions that serve only
the organism and not the cell etc.
What are your thoughts on the origin of cell intelligence?
Jon, it may sound glib, but i don't think there is any other origin
of life. There may never be an explanation of the origin of intelligence
so, are you saying that the origin of life and the origin of cellular
intelligence are one and the same, or are you making the stronger
claim that there was no origin of life (that life is a fundamental
in the universe...sorta like the panspermists believe)
I think the former, although there may be a kind of ' molecular intelligence'
that preceded the cellular one.
The 1998 textbook "Essential Cell Biology" by Bruce Alberts
et. al. describes the centrosome as "the major microtubule-organizing
center in animal cells." The description is of microtubules originating
at nucleation sites within the centrosome and the microtubules engaging
in "dynamic instability" by which they rapidly grow and shrink,
grow and shrink. Occasionally, the microtubules are stabilized by attachment
to another molecule or cell structure. Is all this consistent with
your model? If so, then how would the centrosome also control the formation
of the molecules and structures?
centrosome contains microtubular organizing centers. If microtubules
are the 'nerves' of cells as I have suggested with a certain set
of experiments, then it is obvious that the centrosome needs them
to send out its 'nerves'
Some might argue that there is no scientific basis for assuming a "natural" life-origin
if we have no theoretical models of natural mechanism for the derivation
of functional monomeric sequence. We would then be making metaphysical
assertions rather than scientific ones. Do you agree?
Algorithm's is the last question for the day.
I am not sure whether DNA has that much philosophical importance. But,
yes, at some point all reductionism must end in an irreducible assertion
that by definition is then metaphysical. Even mathematics accepts
that. Biologist will have to do it, as well.
ISCID would like to thank Guenter for his participation in today's
chat. It was very informative (from my end of things at least!)
I hope that everyone had a good time.
My pleasure. Thanks to all the participants.
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