Why not use someone else's DNA?
Toxoplasma Ghondii is the name of a single celled organism. Its reproductive cycle spans across the inner cavities of many different animals and in the world between them. It literally lives in many different organisms. Duplicating itself in most, and sexually reproducing within cats.
Since it uses other organisms as hosts to feed upon, it is considered to be a parasite. It could also be called a cat symbiote.1 Or a biological-weapon deployed from cats to infect all other warm blooded animals. This stratagem which causes cat-prey to lose their sense of fear - to even become sexually attracted to cat urine2.
In being so small Toxoplasma Ghondii does not have a brain. So it cannot plan, yet it can cause the neurological behavior to change in an animal 1000-10000 times larger than it -- it changes thinking. It does this by hijacking the epigenetic machinery within the brain of its host. To explain how this epigenetic-hack works I will switch to a gambling metaphor.
Imagine playing a kind of poker with extremely complicated rules. These rules are so complicated, that nobody at the table, other than the dealer, knows what they are. This is high stakes poker, where you need to have a lot of money just to take a seat at the table. The game would be sufficiently based on chance, so that a weak player could sometimes win against a strong player.
Now suppose you decide to play this game.
After watching others play for a while, you think you have gotten an idea about what the rules might be like. Then you puzzle together a playing strategy for the game. This strategy is so complicated that you don't feel comfortable keeping it in your head. You notice that other players are referencing play books, so you decide to make one too. Taking a deep breath, you boldly place your chips down and start.
After playing a couple of rounds you notice that you have more chips now than when you started. So you decide to take some risks. After experimenting in the game you have noticed that if you change your strategy, even a little bit, you tend to lose a lot of chips in your next play. Sometimes, however, this little change really helps you out; you can get a quick wind fall. Over time though, the other players at the table adapt to your innovation, and you stop winning as much.
What makes our game even stranger, is that the rules of the game seem to change just a bit between hands. Nobody seems to mind, and the casino has never favoured one player over another.
So you play this weird game for a while and you notice some inter-player dynamics. Players have grouped together into loose coalitions, or teams. You have decided to join team human. Also at the table are team cat, dog, mouse and rat, and it goes on.
How players do individually seems almost random. However, no team seems to get ahead of another in terms of total chip count. You have long since stopped consistently winning and have joined the other players in what seems to be a random walk, your chip count going up and down. There doesn't seem to be a clear way to win the game out right.
However, if you have won enough chips, you can cash out. But you can only do this if another player from your team will do it with you. To begin this ritual you need to wink at a player on team human and if they wink back, the two of you meet together just outside of earshot of the other players. After all, you don't want them to steal your hard won strategies. The two of you compare your play books and write a couple of new books that comprise interesting mashups of these two different approaches. Then you both call up a number of friends that have expressed interest in playing the game. You pass on your new books and a bit of your winnings to these friends, then you and your darling head off into the night, to live it large. Your friends join team human and the game continues.
There is another way to leave the game. You just have to lose all of your chips. If this happens a friendly looking black clad security guard taps you on the shoulder and escorts you out of the casino.
Enter the griefers:
A griefer is a player in a multiplayer video game who deliberately irritates and harasses other players within the game, using aspects of the game in unintended ways.
The griefers arrive at the table en masse, with all sorts of stupid ways to play. They each start with one chip.3 They really don't care if they win or lose -- if they lose, they know another luckier-griefer will quietly slip them a chip under the table. They are equipped with a ready supply of super big gulps and that nacho-like food you can only buy at 7-11. They are loud, obnoxious, and periodically shout non sequitur slogans. Most of them lose right away, but every once in a while one of them wins big, then quietly subsidizes the other loser griefers with free chips. People complain that they are cheating, but for some reason that nobody can understand, they are not banned from the game.
Most griefers lose interest in the game quickly, when they do they identify another griefer and then both simultaneously scream their strategy in klingon to their griefer replacements. They drop their chips and their garbage on the floor and leave on the night train back to Surrey. There always seems to be more griefers.
Most of the 'real players' don't like these griefers much. For the obvious reasons and also because they force a strategic response to their accidental innovations in the game play. Changing a strategy in this weird game is very dangerous, since most of the time it doesn't work, and when a player loses all of their chips they are asked to leave the casino. Nobody wants to be forced to leave the party.
With the arrival of the griefers and their weird play strategies you see that the pattern of a chip equilibrium between the teams disappears. In it's wake are random fluctuations, some teams begin to win big while others lose their chips all together.
The surviving players like to believe they know much more about the game, and most of the time they still win -- but it's hard to say that they really know anything for sure. They are forced to take on more risk than they would like.
Thankfully, these incumbents evolve. Instead of just using one strategy, they write a play book full of different strategies that seem to work in different situations. To mark this book as being different from the original play book, they decide to call it the genome play-book. The problem with their genome play-book is that they don't know which strategy to use for a given game situation. The game is changing fast now that the griefers have arrived. So, this whole genome-play-book idea starts to look half-baked.
Then someone has another idea, "how about we create a second book, that tells you how to use the first book depending on the current game play?" As this is a book that tells you how to use another book, they decide to call it the epigenome play-book. This is because epi in Greek means "on top of". Now, when a person wants to cash out, they and their partner mix, then transfer their genome and epigenome play-books to their replacements.
Over the course of many many games, it is discovered that a strategic addition to the genome (the first book) is still sometimes required. If you can add such a strategy, you are very lucky. Most of the time such a move will get you bounced out of the casino, your books in hand -- all information lost to the next round of players. That said, you can be more fast and loose with the epigenome book (the second book); if you instruct someone to use the wrong pre-proven strategy, the consequences are less catastrophic. As a result, you discover you can take more risks changing your epigenome.
Wow, this has gotten kind of complicated. So lets go over things again. There is a poker-like game that people are playing, where nobody, other than the dealer, knows the rules. Furthermore, the rules seem to change randomly over time. As each player plays, they guess how the rules work and then write down a set of different strategies that have worked into a play book called the genome. They have a second book called the epigenome that tells them which strategy to use in the first book, for a given point in the game. Various players have grouped together into teams. To be a member of a team means that you can cash out your chips with another team member if you have both done well enough in the game. Things were kind of fun and stable, until the griefers showed up. With their arrival on the scene, things got a lot dumber -- which was fine, but things also got a lot smarter by accident. There was an equilibrium that existed before; you could rely on the stability of your opponents approach to the game. The griefers totally randomized this. To adapt to this new level of game play, you and all of the other players changed your approach to how you both use-and-track your complicated strategies.
In the real world, the genome play book is represented by our DNA. Instead of adjusting how you play your cards, this play book is used to determine how you are shaped and to some extent how you will behave in the world. Our genome contains a lot of redundancy and different strategies that can be turned on or off when the environment of the world changes. In our gambling metaphor the game represents this environment. Our real epigenome is a type of code on top of our DNA, it determines which genes should be turned on or off under which environmental conditions. It turns out that the epigenome can also change how we are shaped and how we will behave, since it has some control over which parts of our DNA are activated. The Griefers are the small, fast species that can evolve quickly.
Moving back into our gambling metaphor, a new super griefer collective arrives at the table. They call themselves Toxoplasma Ghondii. They like Star Wars over Star Trek, and bubble gum over big gulps and nachos. They are still griefers so they still like to 'cheat'. They do this by pick pocketing other player's play books so that they can write random instructions within them, Fun!
Fortune favours the bold: a lucky T. Ghondii member does a small random re-write of the genome of some player called big-cat. After this adjustment, big-cat shifts a few chips under the table to the collective anytime he wins. Beginners luck! Over time, all members of team-cat have this adjustment in their play books. T. Ghondii and team-cat have become secret allies.
So the T. Ghondii collective plays poker, loses pretty much every hand, and somehow ends up with a larger pile of chips in front of them. Nobody seems to notice that this is happening.
The T. Ghondii collective doesn't really want to think or write anything down about the main game, after all, it is complicated. Why write things down when someone else has already written things down? So they pass a couple of unconscious policies -- no screaming in Klingon and only use a gum wrapper as a play book. Oh, and, let's work this team-cat angle!
So, T. Ghondii, starts to play a new game, at first they try again to over write other player's genome play books, but that just has those players lose too quickly, and not necessarily to team-cat. T. Ghondii doesn't really know what to write, since these strategies are very complicated. So instead, they decide to just randomly change the other player's epigenomes. "Vote for chaos!" This way they can take advantage of the colossal amount of writings in the genome play books, without really knowing, or having to care what is there. They do this in a kind of trial and error way.
Over time they end up with a couple of useful chicken scratches in their bubble gum wrapper play books. These instructions are used to make slight edits to another players epigenome. This has these 'real players', consistently lose to team-cat -- and the T. Ghondii collective gets their secret pay out under the table. "Money in the bank."
Toxoplasma Ghondii, are hackers who have a play book that makes some adjustments in other players epigenomes. This means that it changes how that player chooses to link the current game conditions to the strategies held in their main play book. It essentially writes a simple program on top of a program which chooses an even more complicated program. Ugh. The T. Ghondii hack is not consciously known to them. It's written in a language that they don't understand. The majority of the information needed to understand this hack exists in other animal's genomes and epigenomes. This is great innovation for them, since it means that they can be very very small, and still have a lot of control over the very very large, and complicated behavior of their world.
How do you describe their bubble gum play book in a word? An epi-epi-genome? This isn't a truthful description since it implies that the code is held within the T. Ghondii itself. How about an epi-trans-epi-genome. Where the 'trans' describes that the code is not stored within the T. Ghondii at all. I'm sure you can think of a better name for this.
The T. Ghondii greifer collective doesn't know or care why it is capable of affecting the play of other players epigenomes, all it knows that if team cat wins, it gets paid. Furthermore, it doesn't have to store its playbook information within itself at all. It uses the information that is stored by the other players. It doesn't understand it doesn't care, it doesn't think. It's like Charlie Sheen this way, it just wins.4
Furthermore, it doesn't care about the language or categories that we have defined in biology to adumbrate its behavior. It defies our notion that something that exists, exists within itself. So much of what makes T. Ghondii work is actually stored in the genomes and epigenomes of other life forms. We can study how the T. Ghondii cell works, or the specifics of it's tiny genome, but we really can't understand it without examining it's hosts and the cat DNA and how it affects which genes are being switch on and off by their host's epigenome. It's genetic information is actually smeared across the ecosystem.
In a further post I will describe how the real Toxoplasma Ghondii works in the real world. Truth is stranger than fiction.
If you google this word, you will find that it doesn't see to exist within the biological lexicon. Instead, you will find pictures of a character that kind of looks like a big, black version of spider man with bad teeth. The symbiote describes an orgasm that is the sum of two overlapping beings, where both parts benefit from their relationship in the whole. It is a noun, describing a single being in which two other beings live in a symbiotic relationship. ↩
Take a moment to reflect upon this the next time you change the kitty litter. ↩
They have discovered some way to declare themselves as an ethnicity. Their lawyers have found a way to circumvent the casino's equal access ethnicity policies to gain access to any table in the place. ↩
Space Griefing as an explanation of the great filter: