The Symbiotic Complex

Many moons ago, when I first started out in conservation, I was introduced to the concept of symbiosis.

The idea fascinated me, startled my young, impressionable mind and has led me to discover this wonderful yet questioningly complicated relationship between two completely different organisms.

In 1879, Heinrich Anton de Bary defined symbiosis as “the living together of unlike organisms”.(1) It can be obligatory, where survival predetermines the choice, or facultative, where it’s optional to co-exist whilst being independent of each other.

My first real encounter of mutual symbiosis was witnessing a clownfish living in a sea anemone, a very clear and self-explanatory scene where everything just made sense. “Why not?” I thought. The clownfish, immune to the anemone’s stinging cells, gains protection from predators by making a home within and in return feeds on small invertebrates that could otherwise harm the anemone. Apart from providing nutrients to the sea anemone, the clownfish also ’emits a high-pitched sound that deters butterfly fish’(1) which will potentially eat the anemone. Win-win.

Fast forward to today, when my marine conservation and diving career has transformed into working with trees, I see it all over again. Fungi and trees for example, also form a mutually symbiotic relationship. Mycorrhizal fungi in particular have this special connection with tree roots, helping roots find and absorb water and nutrients and in return, the fungi take in glucose sugars produced by the tree through photosynthesis.

In addition to mutualism, there is also commensalism (where members of one species gain benefits while those of the other species neither benefit nor are harmed(2), e.g. sharks and remoras) and parasitism (where one organism, the parasite, lives on or inside another organism, the host, causing it some harm, and is adapted structurally to this way of life(3), e.g. honey fungus Armillaria, which eventually takes over the host tree and becomes saprophytic).

In recent years – and also due to personal circumstances which I call life – this relationship between organisms has frequently brimmed on my thought horizon and I wonder about the intention of symbiosis, much akin to the reasoning behind human co-existence.

Nature’s interactions are dynamic and so are human society’s. We generally align ourselves with people who fit in with our interests and benefit us in some way, while disengaging with others who don’t. With the intellect we possess as human beings, the ability to make these choices is a conscious process. However, given that much in nature is opportunistic, does a symbiont consciously abandon its host or other symbiont (and vice-versa), or cease to persist if the longevity of the exchange is no longer viable?(4)

In relation to connections in life and love, human relationships are so complicated and I have really had my fair share of dealing with them the past few years.

In 2015 I actually went through a phase of not wanting to interact much with other people, when I had all but given up hope that there are still good people who want to protect the planet and not seek to destroy it. Then I realised that people needed people and I needed people; it was the intrinsic positive (and negative) connections and interactions that made my life on this earth multi-faceted, so I gave in and learned to trust people again. Although I still have episodes of that phase reoccurring due to negative experiences, my baseline has always been to exist independently while still maintaining tethers with others for my sanity. Question is, do I rid what no longer benefits me anymore or ceases to make me happy, in order to move on and grow in a positive way?

When I look at trees, I find myself naturally drawn to epiphytes like lichens, which are almost mini ecosystems of their own, being composite organisms arising from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship(5), even though they depend on substrate surfaces like plants and trees. With environmental factors sometimes disrupting their growth, they remarkably manage to adapt and survive on their own in times of crisis either by compromising (an act of self-preservation) for a short period of time, or replicating and even merging with others. Not to mention that they are apparently some of the oldest living lifeforms on this planet.

So you can see why I would quite like to be a lichen, really.

Hang in there Cheryl, this too shall pass.

4 thoughts on “The Symbiotic Complex

Add yours

  1. Some of those mutualistic relationships are of particular relevance at Christmas when we engage with family and friendship groups. The benefits we receive and the energy we invest are not always easy to reconcile. Emotional accounting has few rules!
    Reading your words I was thinking that symbionts and mutualists are also dependent; as we are on others and as others are on us – and it’s not always a choice.
    Thank you for another thought provoking piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of forces and energy exchanges at work here, many of which we have no control over. When we talk about manifestations through thought and the conscious choices that we possess as intellectual beings, it does fascinate me about our brains and the potential we have, though sometimes we just want it to be simpler, like in nature. Because we are human, it really never is! Appreciate you reading my post so early in the morning! Hope you had a great symbiotic Christmas. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: