A Walk Through Time

What Is An Individual?

Concept Note

Identity is a process, not an object. All Earth life is connected through a common ancestry. Each "individual" (each organism)-cow, beetle, daisy, human --is actually a consortium of transformed and still-living other beings.

Mixotricha paradoxa ("paradoxically mixed-up hairs"), as seen in the termite community, may help to explain the fractal, nested-network nature of life. A termite nest functions as a superorganism: each nest is an "individual" made up of thousands of termites with specialized, integrated roles. Within an "individual" termite are wall-to-wall microorganisms numbering up to 1012 (a trillion) bacteria and 107 (10 million) protists. A termite's hindgut microbial community (an anoxic habitat for successors of ancient microbes) helps digest the wood consumed by the chewing machine.

Within that hindgut microbial community lives a beautiful tiny protoctist called Mixotricha, It is actually a consortium of populations: one nucleated cell, two kinds of spirochete bacteria, a rod bacterium on the surface, and internal (endosymbiotic) bacteria, Mixotricha is in the process of emerging a new "individual."

Top: The microbial world inside a New England termite (Reticulitermes flavipes) is seen in this circle of microscopic light.

Right: Bosch? Dali? No, it's Mixotricha paradoxa. From 250,000 to 500,000 tiny spirochetes move the "giant" Mixotricha through the viscous habitat.

Bottom: Hindgut wall of a wood-eating termite.

(Illustrations by Kathryn Delisle, top, and Christie Lyons)

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