My Protocellular Diary
Ben A, 11th Grade
Written in response to a writing assignment in the Math of Life class that asked students to create a narrative for the emergence and primordial evolution of life as a complex adaptive system.
I was just a very small, powerless, and lifeless protocell. I had no control over anything, not even my own movement. When I was younger, my random walks would petrify me; I would frequently drift away from my pack of protocells. Now that I am older, and naturally, bigger, I’ve grown to love these random walks. I was a protocell filled with adventure and curiosity; the only thing stopping me was the fact that I wasn’t even alive. I lived in a world of protocells and volcanic oceans, not an industrialized urban environment. That made it hard for me to get things done. What I needed to do was to spark some life and evolution into this world. The only problem was, I couldn’t just decide to become alive. It took a bit more than just an idea.
One day, however, when I had no hope of life, I saw something amazing. I live in a rather small ‘neighborhood’ of protocells. Everyone gets to know everyone, or at least recognize everyone. Our shape distinguishes us all. We are made of permeable membranes and a fluid core, but none of us looks the same. I am a rather small circular protocell, while my good pal Gordon is a rectangular protocell. On this day, however, a neighbor of mine came drifting by twice as big as when I had seen him that morning. The thing about protocells is that we don’t grow very fast at all. We are able to phagocytose some elements in through our membrane, but we never double in size that quickly. When he came rolling passed everyone, we were all filled with a feeling of amazement. How could he have done this? Could he be evolving into a real life form!?
The next day, three more protocells looked completely different than they had the day before. A pattern began to emerge, as every day more and more protocells were growing. Before I knew it, half the town was this size.
One day, as I was strolling along far from my village, I found the answer to this abnormal growth. I came across two shapes I had never seen before. They seemed to be some sort of monomers. Unable to control my direction, I rammed right into them. They were quickly engulfed into my membrane and stuck within me. These monomers, wrapping within me, did something very strange! They were very close together and able to interact with one another. They bonded together and to the inside of my membrane. As they attached, I felt an activation within my body, a new awareness of my surroundings! As I drifted back to my village, this polymer within me gave me the small but marked ability to eat up other monomers rather consciously. But yet, this wasn’t life; this was just a state of awareness. The next step was to gain full control of my body. I needed to be able to eat what I needed to eat and catalyze reactions within me. When I got back to my village, the other big protocells and I were the sight of the town! As I moved around, I constantly began symbiosing small monomers around me. There was now a large polymer within me and some small monomers that had not yet bonded to each other. I figured that, in order to become alive, I needed to make a circle of attached monomers, all around my membrane. This connection of all my internal parts would spark a network of functioning enzymes.
As time passed, more and more protocells grew. I was not one of the few anymore; my whole village was starting to evolve. This influx of monomers was completely lucky, but boy did it find the right group of protocells! One morning I was drifting along, when all of a sudden I felt a tingle within me. I had just formed the ring of monomers inside of me. Was this life? What has happened? I was able to catalyze reaction within me. I could fully control what I ate, and how I ate it. But life needs to sustain itself. Now that I’m a living organism, a lot of responsibility lies on my shoulders. Going back to my village, I saw a lot of new living protocells. We congratulated each other warmly! The non-living protocells now seemed to be replaceable. Those who were my friends now seemed dead.
Those who were alive grouped together, trying to protect each other. Unfortunately, not all of us were so lucky, we very quickly saw the downside to life. Many of my friends’ polymers detached, and they dropped down dead, back to protocells. We had to be always eating and protect ourselves from bacteria. Our permeable membrane would, without knowing it, phagocytose a bacterium. This would have detrimental problems. To avoid death, we quickly used our enzyme membrane to help the protocells obtain the necessary polymers. We needed to grow, expand, and especially evolve. I had an idea! Our enzymes needed to be made much more specific. This would allow every enzyme in our bodies to do a different thing, so we could have protection and a food supply at the same time on our membrane. Once our enzymes were doing the necessary work, a genetic code was produced. This code told each enzyme exactly what to do at every moment. This kept our enzymes working hard within us.
Next, I thought of a radical idea. This idea included phagocytosis. We found unicellular organisms not far from us. They were called mitochondria. They had their own set of genes and the ability to create their own energy. My idea was to eat them up, and use our DNA genes to tell them what to do. I tested out the idea. I ate up a mitochondria! My enzymes acclimated it to my body, and before I knew it, I was making my own energy. The mitochondria, although no longer its own organism, was happy because I gave it protection! Once my friends saw the success of my mitochondria, they each found their own.
At this point, we each had Genes, Enzymes and functioning mitochondria. As time passed, we became more and more stable living. As our genes were continually used, there started to be mutations. That was our first step in evolution. As we divided and made new cells, the passed-down genes changed and evolved. Our offspring were better than we were.
I soon grew old, and spent most of my time at home. No matter how sick I was, I was very confident that the life I had begun would grow even more, and one day, be so large and successful, that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.