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Endosymbiotic Design

By: Stephan Harding
Senior Lecturer and Coordinator
MSc Holistic Science Postgraduate Programme
Schumacher College

Recently, here at Schumacher College, I led a Deep Time Walk (see: for 30 or so international designers on a course entitled ‘Transition Design: New Solutions For Life on a Finite Planet’, convened and curated by two old friends of Schumacher College: Professor Terry Irwin, a graduate of our MSc in Holistic Science, and now Head of the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, with her partner Dr Gideon Kossoff, Adjunct Professor, also at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, who administered the MSc here for many years and who was also the college’s librarian.

After walking the first kilometre (representing one thousand million years, with one millimetre equal to one thousand years) starting with the formation of the solar system and the Earth from the remains of a huge supernova explosion, we reached the point at 3,500 million years ago when we can say with some confidence that bacteria had by then appeared.  Spontaneously, without any prior plan, I found myself speaking about bacteria as designers, as skilled innovators of biochemical inventions such as photosynthesis which they shared (and still share, to this day) with their neighbours via the stunning technique of horizontal gene transfer. 

In this process, bacteria do more or less what we do with emails. First, a single, innovative bacterium makes a multitude of copies of the genes for its invention. It can then spit these out into its surroundings, often packaged within viruses that travel in winds, rivers and tides.  When other bacteria, near or far, make contact with this genetic material, they can incorporate it into their own genomes and begin to express and use the invention.  In this way innovations spread like wildfire through the global bacterial biosphere, as we are now discovering to our cost with the emerging problem of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria have an immense propensity for living and sharing, for mutually beneficial symbiosis. They love to bind themselves into highly cooperative communities helped along by their marked ability to communicate with each other using a variety of intricate chemical languages in a process known as quorum sensing, whilst also sharing innovations using horizontal gene transfer.

As we walked hundreds of millions of years towards the present day on our Deep Time Walk, this group of talented designers mulled over and digested the idea that they might have more in common with bacteria than they would have previously imagined.  Human designers and bacteria both design to solve the problems of life.  Both share their discoveries.  Both impact the planet significantly.

After walking for a further billion years (one kilometre) along the South West coast path, overlooking the great width of the English Channel, we reached 2,500 million years ago, approximately the time when some bacteria lit upon a completely new kind of symbiosis – symbiosis from within: endosymbiosis.  Roughly speaking, what occurred is that a large, predatory bacterium engulfed a much smaller prey bacterium skilled in releasing large amounts of energy from its food using newly accessible free oxygen from the atmosphere.  Normally the larger bacterium would send digestive enzymes to dismember the smaller prey bacterium, but this time something different happened. Predator and prey struck up a conversation that might have proceeded somewhat along the following lines:

Prey:  “Wait!  Don’t digest me – Let’s do a deal. If you let me live comfortably inside you, I’ll give you a service you simply can’t refuse”.

Predator: “Oh, yes, puny one, what could that possibly be? Speak fast. I’m feeling hungry”.

Prey: “Here’s the deal.  You let me live inside you, and then you take it easy and let me burn up all your food for you using oxygen molecules that trickle in from your outside. That way, I’ll release far more energy for you than you do with that clunky old fashioned pre-oxygen metabolism of yours.  I’ll benefit by living in the nice, roomy intracellular palace that is you, and you’ll enjoy a huge energy boost, allowing you to become a new kind of cell, far larger and more complex than the bacteria. You’ll be able to create worlds you’ve never dreamed of”.

Predator: “I’d be a fool to turn that down.  Ok, let’s get to work.”

And so it happened that this endosymbiotic association evolved, in time, into the eukaryotic cell – the cell with a nucleus, the cell about 50 times bigger on average than a bacterial cell, full of differentiated organelles carrying out its by now highly complex life functions, with energy supplied by a myriad of mitochondrial powerhouses, each one a descendant of that first endosymbiotic oxygen breathing bacterium – the one that did the deal.   Every single multicellular eukaryotic creature such as ourselves, other animals, plants, fungi and algae evolved and emerged from this original endosymbiotic encounter.

Endosymbiosis has worked sublimely well for two about thousand five hundred million years. It is a superb design solution to the fundamental problem of how best to live and thrive in the teaming world of the biosphere. Given that they are so successful, could endosymbiotic bacteria help us to elucidate design principles for living sustainably within our Earth?  If so, what might these principles be?  In endosymbiosis, one partner lives inside the other, to the benefit of both.  Gaia, Earth, is the larger being within whom we live. Are we endosymbionts within Gaia? A little reflection quickly reveals that our current globalised Western culture is not of overall benefit to Gaia. Rather, it is her biggest problem right now. So we are not, currently, endosymbiotic to Gaia. But could we be?

To become endosymbiotic to Gaia, everything we design, every artefact, every industrial process, each manner of generating energy and food, every social system, must be of benefit both to ourselves and to Gaia. This raises the interesting question of how we can possibly be of benefit to our planet.  There are two very obvious ways: by allowing the processes of evolution to unfold as richly and as fully as possible; and by protecting the cycles of the elements that cycle through Gaia’s body: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulphur and many others. Both of these ways help the planet to retain its resilience –its ability to bounce back after disturbances – which directly benefits us by providing a habitable biosphere. 

Endosymbiotic design is very similar (or even identical) to the well-established discipline of regenerative design, which “describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials, creating sustainable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature” (see: Our MSc graduate, Daniel Wahl, has just produced an excellent book on this topic: Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triachry Press, 2016). Endosymbiotic design actively seeks to maximise mutual benefits between humans and nature, whilst regenerative design seeks to integrate with nature, so the distinction is probably merely semantic since we benefit both ourselves and nature by integrating with her. These are two takes on the same insight from different angles - useful because each sets off from a different starting point.

What does endosymbiotic design mean in practice?  Let’s take a bicycle and see how it could be designed endosymbiotically.  A little reductionism comes in handy here. A bicycle is made out of three basic ingredients: rubber, metal and plastic.  Let’s start with the tyres.  They are made of rubber.  By supporting the right kind of rubber tapping in the Amazon, from wild trees looked after by local communities, we enhance both the life of the forest and of the local people, who thereby sustain and develop a rich forest-friendly culture in which they know themselves as plain members of the forest community.   The bicycle’s frame and wheels are made of metals.  By using only recycled metals we help to prevent further mining, which, in its current excesses, is hugely disturbing and destabilising to Gaia.  What about the plastics?  These can be made from biomass grown in local farmers’ fields as part of their ecologically sophisticated, wild-land friendly, highly productive food growing systems.  And of course, all the bicycle’s components are recycled at the end of its life. 

So, in making a bicycle endosymbiotically, we act as beings deeply within Gaia in ways that maintain and enhance her resilience as a living planet.  To act in this way requires each of us to develop our own individual style of Gaian consciousness, unique to ourselves.  We become aware of the fact that we live, as David Abram has so wisely said, not on the Earth, but in the Earth.  We need to feel Earth, Gaia, as our larger self, our larger body (as Abram has also said) within which we strive to live endosymbiotically. When we are in our Gaian consciousness, we experience a great kinship with all living beings, with rocks, air and water.  They have, for us, become who they really are, palpably alive, sentient. We feel them at every moment as beings, as presences that must be protected and respected.  We know them to be alive, since we are in touch with our own indigeneity, with that ancient person within us who links our hearts and minds. 

Our hands grasp the handle bars and we hoist ourselves up onto our mount of rubber, metal and plastic.  We ride off, balancing on our steed, enjoying these Gaia-given gifts crafted into a bicycle by our brilliant designers, feeling Earth’s subtle balance.