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I am a bit obsessed with plant galls (the study of which is called cecidology). Here is a plant leaf:

Observing it, you might think that you know what this plant’s genome can make – a flat, green structure. But, with the help of a non-human bioengineer – a parasite such as a wasp, which can hack the cells with signals we do not yet understand – we find out that these cellular swarms actually have much more morphogenetic competency: they can make the amazing structures below, all without changes of the genome. By studying this kind of bioprompting, we get closer to understanding the latent space of form and function around the typical default outcomes of a given genome. Such constructs (including synthetic biologicals such as Xenobots) represent a kind of periscope, with which to peek into the latent space of life-as-it-can-be, or better yet, an exploratory vehicle with which to navigate that space to identify useful and informative shapes that can result from the same genomically-specified hardware. Our lab and others are working to crack the morphogenetic code and learn how to program such collective intelligences as they navigate the anatomical, physiological, and metabolic worlds in which they live. Truly transformative advances in regenerative medicine and engineering await.

Here are some photos of diverse galls and their contents, taken of specimens kindly donated by George Ellmore and Timothy Boomer (check out his amazing site here), as well as ones I found myself:

9 responses to “Galls”

  1. Alex V Avatar
    Alex V

    This is incredible! I’ve read about these in the works of biologist Grebennikov. Excited to see the results of your research!

  2. wayne Lewis Avatar
    wayne Lewis

    One thing I wonder about in this space…and btw I think the periscope metaphor is an apt one…is just how vast the set of attractors might be. For many years I’ve thought of organisms on up in the biosphere as possessing the property of a universal problem solver. Is computation the right word? Perhaps?
    I’m careful to say posses this property because as I see it, while organisms may indeed have this universal (in a sense that transcends the digital) computation property, they are more than that because they have immanent purposes and further these purposes are at their root vital in nature.
    But getting back to the space, I do wonder whether there exists anything like an exhaustive list of the morphologies a given organism can access via the entire toolbox available to them. Or pergola more likely these lists of morphologies are of the same type as the unprestateable list of uses for a screwdriver. That is, essentially the frame problem holds sway.
    Even so, tye approach of using AI to iteratively in combination with experiment get a good feel for the territory seems a very lucid approach.

  3. Nick Gall Avatar

    Beautiful images! For obvious reasons, I too am fascinated to the point of obsession with the concept and phenomena of galls.

  4. Matthew Kaiser Avatar
    Matthew Kaiser

    My initial reaction to what your describing sounds something like a biological ruliad space (Wolfram).

  5. Tiffany Isbell Avatar
    Tiffany Isbell

    Very interesting! And very exciting in terms of research. I, myself, was unfamiliar with this until reading this post. Thank you for sharing! There is so much to be discovered!

  6. Hank Liliënthal Avatar
    Hank Liliënthal

    Fascinating…….I wonder if I could ever be as effective as a wasp’s chewing 🙂

    1. John MacBride Avatar
      John MacBride

      The spined turban gall is my favorite so far ( but all galls reflect well the idea of “endless forms”.

      I’d love to get into plant bioelectricity and, while Giovanni Sena’s work on arabidopsis roots is interesting, I’m more excited to experiment with tissue growth. What books/papers should I check out?

      Thanks so much for all the inspiring work you do.

      1. Mike Levin Avatar
        Mike Levin

        Thanks. I am not aware of any books on bioelectrical control of plant morphogenesis. There are few papers; one of the most interesting (not surprisingly) is Burr’s: There’s some info on plants in Lund’s 1947 “Bioelectric fields and growth”. There’s also . But this is just scratching the surface. We will be doing more of this in my lab soon.

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