Monster Formation

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



I think that in that black pool of the Id of most biologists, amateur and professional alike, there lurks a fascination with monsters and for some of us with the Frankenstein gene, an inclination even to try to create our own monsters. This fascination extends far beyond biologists however. Consider the ancient Greek, Roman, and Medieval accounts of Sphinxes, Griffins, Satyrs, etc.; the popularity of the Loch Ness monster first reported in 565 A.D. by Adamnan who described St. Columba’s sighting of a great water beast; the “freaks” collected for the royal courts of Europe to amuse the aristocracy and later by P.T. Barnum in America for public entertainment, as long as you had the price of a ticket.

Museums were full of the remains of creatures ideal for disciplining unruly children. “George, if you don’t behave, we’ll feed you to a Tyrannosaurus” or “Molly, if you don’t quit yelling, we’ll get one of the big sharks and put it in the swimming pool.” It’s an intriguing fact about the human psyche that we love to be safely scared out of our wits—thus the popularity of horror movies; just think of the Jurassic Park trilogy or the Jaws movies and the Alien films.

Nature has, in fact, served as an inspiration for many of the films in this genre. The giant sand worms in Dune look rather like nematodes on steroids. The creature from The Blob resembles an enormously obese amoeba. Sharks are real and huge, carnivorous dinosaurs were real and both are/were terrifying, but nature has produced other kinds of unnerving monsters for us ranging from ultramicroscopic creatures to large carnivores. In addition, however, nature’s endless random experiments lead to genetic “mistakes” in copying DNA sequences and some of these deformed organisms survive and a few may actually manage to reproduce and on rare occasions thrive.

Viruses are potentially disconcerting because it wasn’t until the 20th Century, with the invention of the transmission electron microscope, that we could really see them and begin to systematically study them. Certain types of viruses are able to mutate at an alarming rate and if they are pathogens, that can constitute a terrifying threat to human beings. The distinguished biochemist Joshua Lederberg stated: “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is a virus.” We know that millions of people die every year of viral diseases and that these ultramicroscopic machines are utterly indifferent and impersonal; they are merely constituted, with frightening efficiency, to keep altering themselves to survive changing conditions unfavorable to them, such as, the vaccines which we devise.

In the process of creating monsters, nature “makes mistakes” in the transcription of the genetic material. There are many possible reasons for these “mistakes.”It is somewhat analogous to monks copying manuscripts in cold, dank, libraries and their hands trembling with the chill might well copy one letter in such a fashion that it looks like another which in some rare instances could radically change the meaning of a text. Or perhaps failing eyesight might lead a monk to inadvertently omit the occasional line of text. Or a monk who felt that he had been unfairly disciplined might add a few choice observations here and there in the text he was copying. Many, many cases of “mistakes” on the part of nature seem to have no significant consequences, but there are instances where these”errors”are striking, bizarre, disconcerting, horrifying, and/or deadly.

No one is terribly bothered by mutant Paramecia unless they are giant ones in a horror film attacking hapless, pimply teenagers. However, when extreme anomalies show up in human infants, then we are rightfully deeply disturbed. There is an area of medicine which even most physicians don’t much like to talk about–it is called teratology and has to do with monster formation. Some of nature’s transcription errors are appalling–cyclopia (infants with only one eye in the center of the forehead), massive skull deformations as in the case of Robert Merrick, the Elephant Man, spina bifida, microcephaly, hydrocephaly, cleft palate, and infants with no real brain, merely a brain stem. Few of these infants survive long but, for the ones who do, it is inevitably a living Hell for those aware enough to have a sense of their surroundings and also for their caregivers.

Two-headed calves, 5-legged pigs, and other such anomalies have long been known to farmers and they were often sold to traveling exhibits. More recently, biologists have begun to find increasing numbers of deformities in fish, amphibians, and even mammals. The reasons for this are complex and the suspected causes are unnerving, especially since some of them involve factors that affect us as well. It is psychologically difficult for us to accept grim truths and, as a species, we tend either to ignore them or try to rationalize them away. We don’t like issues that are depressing or discouraging, especially when they interfere with our self-indulgence and fun.

Just very briefly, let us consider the matter of global climate shift.

1) First, most of us denied that there was anything significant going on. We all know that throughout our planet’s history quirky changes took place–cold spells, hot spells, ice ages, the after-effects of Krakatoa, etc.

2) Then, evidence began to accumulate that pointed to some rather drastic changes which were not so easily explained away as random flukes of nature. These phenomena suggested that perhaps human beings had a role in producing these changes.

3) Then comes the crunch. What? We are part of the cause? Nonsense! Burning coal? Well, mining it gave some workers pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. So what? Every job has its risks. Burning oil? Well, so we put some smoke in the air. Big deal. Occasionally a little oil spill and some birds and otters get zapped. These creatures are a nuisance anyway. How could we be to blame? Accidents happen. Nobody’s perfect. Just give it time and it will take care of itself. If we start taking this stuff seriously, think of what it will do to the economy!

4) Glaciers all over the world are melting at a rate even faster than that predicted by previous computer models. The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. The average temperature of the world’s oceans is rising. Now, we are at the point where even if you deny that the activity of human beings has been a contributing causal factor, it is clear that vast changes are taking place on our planet–our home–and the crucial question is : What can we do to reverse the damage, slow the effects, and convince ourselves that we must alter our patterns of living to better protect the planet?

5) The changes are accelerating and have now been documented virtually all over the planet. International summits are slow, ponderous, and reveal how little sense of true world community exists. The United State, China, India, Russia, and oil-producing states, supported by multinational corporations resist significant changes because of the likely effect on economies. In the short term, such narrow-minded, self-interested policies are merely crazy; in the long term, they are utter systematic madness.

Virologists and bacteriologists have long been aware of the abilities of the organisms they study to mutate rapidly in response to a considerable variety of changes in their environment–both minor ones and radical ones. Some scientists even have a certain admiration for the deadly, mechanical, mindless efficacy of these entities. However, transcription errors of “experiments” on the part of nature permeate the entire phylogenetic tree. Some evolutionary experiments have been wildly successful to our misfortune; one of my favorite examples is mosquitoes–if you’re a theist, curse Noah; if you’re an atheist, curse Mother Nature.

Let’s go back to Paramecia for a moment. Monster formation was well-documented for them in the early 20th Century. I remember seeing a photograph of what appeared to be 10 or 12 Paramecia all fused together. I should imagine that this bizarre configuration would make it awkward to swim and feed. For protozoologists who are interested in the problem of ciliary coordination, they should try to produce these monsters in large numbers for research.

Spirotrichs seem particularly prone to producing mutants, especially Stentor coeruleus. [There is some question as to whether or not I should be referring to these anomalies as “mutants”, since that ordinarily means that their alterations can be passed on to their progeny. However, with the extreme peculiarity of the genetics involved in micro-organisms, I am going to take the liberty of using the terms “mutant” and “monster” interchangeably.] When cultures containing these organisms have gotten old and stale, I have frequently found bizarrely-shaped bits of ciliated protoplasm whirling around. Were it not for the unique, dichroic greenish-blue pigment which S. coeruleus possesses, I doubt that I would ever have known that these were mutant Stentor. If one shifts the angle of the light to just the right point, the color shifts to a light rosy-pink. I have seen hundreds of such fragmentary creatures with startling variation in size, shape, and motility. Some are essentially spherical and seem to consist of little more than an uncharacteristically large vacuole upon which one can see pellicular striations. Others, usually smaller, have a roughly pyramidal form with prominent ciliation on the upper, broad side which causes the organism to whirl like a dervish. Why Stentor has this susceptibility is a puzzle. One part of its structure which may be a factor is its long beaded macronucleus.

Vance Tartar, in his excellent book, The Biology of Stentor, reports his experiments which show that Stentor does have a limited ability to regenerate.

I am curious about the unique pigment stentorin, since there is another spirotrich, namely Blepharisma, some species of which also have a unique pigment called blepharismin. [Check Giese’s book on monster formation and regeneration.] This is a photoactive pigment and seems to function by providing a photochemical cue to the organism to keep it in the desirable parts of the water column where there is enough, but not excessive sunlight. Relatively intense light activates the pigment and if this intensity is maintained–as often happens with a microscope illuminator during observation, then the pigment becomes lethal to the Blepharisma. Once again, nature is endlessly experimenting, for not all species of this organism contain this pigment, nor do all species of Stentor contain stentorin; in fact, some contain an entirely different pigment including, in at least one case, a rosy-pink one which, so far as I know is neither related to blepharismin nor is it photoactive.

The conjecture that this long beaded nucleus might be a factor is tentative, if not tenuous. There are other protozoa which have such a nucleus, but don’t seem to be particularly susceptible to mutation–Spirostomum, for example. Another illustration of how nature never seems to tire of taunting us. S. ambiguum and S. minus have long, chain macronuclei, whereas S. teres has a small, compact, ovoid macronucleus. However, none of these species show any particular tendency to produce mutants and it is perhaps worth noting that none of them are pigmented. What transpires within the nucleatic material of protozoans is startlingly complicated. As we have already noted, there are different types of macronuclei and the ones in amoebas are different from those in ciliates which are different from those in sporozoa which are different from those in flagellates. Some protozoa have only one; other have two, three, or many. Then there is the whole issue of micronuclei; some protozoa have none, others have a large number of them.

Even within a given species, protozoologists don’t always agree about the number of macronuclei. For example, when I first began investigating Lacrymaria olor, I found drawings and descriptions stating or showing that it had a single ovoid macronucleus and others that said or showed two. Shortly thereafter, I acquired a microscope that had the capacity for transmitted fluorescence work. I obtained a number of fluorescent stains, read about them, and experimented with them. I settled on the powerful nuclear stain Acridine Orange which has since become my fluorescent stain of first choice.

I had some healthy cultures of Lacrymaria and began staining a good selection of specimens. The macronuclei stood out clearly and vividly–there was a specimen with 3, over there one with just 1, another with 7, one with 5, another with 4. What the devil was going on? So, now should I write a paper saying that L. olor has 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 or possibly more macronuclei? Didn’t I have the evidence? Well, no, not really. Back to the library. Do you remember that pre-Internet institution, the library? I discovered that there is an exotically bizarre process called autogamy by means of which some protozoa are able to perform amazing feats. People don’t ordinarily think of protozoa in relation to nuclear fission but, as I keep saying, the English language is a marvelously strange vehicle of communication (and it doesn’t even have wheels).

For the moment, let’s confine ourselves to ciliates. Careful studies have shown that a Paramecium aurelia can undergo fission (division) a little over 200 times to reproduce before it needs to conjugate with a different type. (Yes, Virginia, protozoa do have sex!) However, if it can’t find a boy friend or girl friend or hermaphrodite or dodeca-gendered partner, then it is able to perform an extraordinary bit of prestidigitation; it divides its nucleus into a number of pieces, makes repairs of genetic damage, recombines the pieces, and begins dividing again. I got so fascinated with this process that I never did get back to trying to find out whether L. olor has 1 or 2 macronuclei under ordinary circumstances. Instead, since I knew that Acridine Orange is a mutagen (it is also a carcinogen and so it must be handled with great care!), I added a few drops to four flourishing cultures. A week or two later when I checked them, they were doing very well with a slightly odd circumstance; in addition to the usual L. olor, there were in each culture a dozen or so 3-necked, 3-headed versions of L. olor! Yes, I had to admit that Acridine Orange was indeed a mutagen. At the time, the only camera I had was a Polaroid microscope camera. These mutants were awkward in their locomotion, but sufficiently active to make photographing them difficult. My few semi-successful images clearly show 2 heads, but the third is obscured. However, first let me show you an image of Lacrymaria, partially contracted while swimming and you can see that the mouth is part way open. There is a series of rods called trichites which can open and close the mouth opening. I have seen specimens of Lacrymaria go up to a Blepharisma and simply “bite” a chunk out of it.

And here are 3 fuzzy image of the “monsters” with 3 heads, even though you can really see only 2.

However, if you accept the pictures of the Loch Ness Monster as genuine, then you won’t have any problem with my photo.

I did this little experiment in one of those spurts of enthusiasm and neglected to write down the concentration of the Acridine Orange or the number of drops I added to the cultures. A few attempts to once again produce 3-headed L. olor have failed. One of these summers, or so I keep telling myself, I’ll get some healthy cultures going and systematically run trials until I get my lovely monsters one again. This time, I’ll make a concerted effort to photograph them, so that you will believe me. However, with the incredibly sophisticated computer graphics technologies available now, virtually no image can be trusted, so you’ll just have to trust me. (Would you buy a used microscope from this man?)

When that magic summer arrives, I want also to try out my splendid Acridine Orange on Stentor and Blepharisma. Actually, I would like to try this out on a wide range of protists and after I win the Nobel Prize or get one of the MacArthur Awards or if Bill Gates suddenly gets captivated by protists and gives me a huge research grant, then I will. In the meantime, I will happily tinker with the local beasties, but it would be awfully nice to have a research assistant.

I was intrigued by the fact that all of L. olor mutants were 3-headed, not 2 or 4 or 12, but 3. Maybe I could start a new religion by claiming that I have found a protist manifestation of the Trinity–the Three in One! which gets even better since Lacrymaria olor means “tear of a swan”, so we can drag in the goddess Leda who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan.

As we move on up the phylogenetic tree, we discover that in some groups–sponges, for examples, it would be very difficult to determine mutants, whereas in other groups “monsters” seem relatively frequent. One link is the ability to regenerate. Planaria are well-know organisms in which monsters are readily created by means of a bit of micro-surgery. With a couple of slices from a sharp scalpel, you can get 3-headed turbellarians or if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious 4 or 5 headed ones. Slicing elsewhere, Dr. Frankenstein, you can produce Planaria with a head at each end or a tail at each end, although this usually involves grafting to work. Obviously these “freaks’ are not going to live very long, but it does tell us something about the extraordinary properties of certain kinds of cells and tissues. Their remarkable properties have been known in invertebrates for well over a century and only recently are we discovering that certain human cells, especially stem cells, have similarly remarkable properties.

Echinoderms, notably asteroids–you know, those large quasi-planetary rocks that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs–WHOOPS, wrong asteroids–no wonder politics is such a mess, especially since English has become the lingua franca of the worlds of commerce, scholarship, and the Internet. Imagine an emergency session of the United Nations when there is a threat that an asteroid may collide with Earth and the translator for the Chinese says: “Mr. Ambassador, the Americans have discovered that a starfish is on its way to Earth and may destroy us all.”

Starfish pose some special problems. We tend to think of them as having pentagonal symmetry, but there are starfish with 4, 6, 7,10,11, 12, 21,36 arms. In some cases, these larger numbers are typical for a given species; however, in other cases, we are given grounds to suspect that something fairly radical has happened. I don’t know of any starfish that typically have 4 arms, nevertheless, I have several specimens of completely different species that have 4 arms. Asteroids are renowned for their ability to regenerate. In fact, in the genus Linkia, specimens can survive and undertake regeneration with only a portion of the central disk and one arm! The results are, of course unpredictable and often they grow back fewer or more arms than the original and they are usually of different lengths. This is not too surprising given the fact that starfish don’t have brains. They have a neural ring and a very elaborate network of fine nerves that extend throughout the membrane that covers the organism. This is true also for echinoids (sea urchins) and while there is not a single coordinating and control organ like a brain there are advantages to having lots of local sensors that feed into a network especially in relation to response time. Many of nature’s most successful experiments combine a brain with elaborate, extended neural networks. Clearly one of the greatest advantages of being “brainless” organisms, I won’t say it; I won’t insult my colleagues–but I don’t mind with politicians–like Bush, Cheney,, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Lieberman, Wolfowitz, Gonzales, and–well, let’s just say the Neo-Cons..the great advantage–one doesn’t have to think, just react.

The neural nets are clearly critical in the remarkable regenerative capacities of starfish. The degree to which that is true for other organisms is less clear. The extraordinary advances in cell research and genetics have vividly brought to our attention the most incredible metamorphic capacity of certain kinds of cells. The implications of this research are vast. Already scientists have learned that a significant number of diseases, disorders, and syndromes are linked to complexes of genes.

There is another set of related concerns that has arisen over the last couple of decades and that is the increasing number of animals, such as fish and toads, which are exhibiting severe deformation. In other words, vertebrate “monsters” are showing up in disturbing numbers and some biologists are working full-time to try to pin down the causes. The most likely candidates are, of course, a variety of types of pollutants. We humans have been very poor caretakers of our own planet and now with the great excesses of population, the exponential exploitation of Earth’s resources, and the production of ever increasing amounts of toxic waste products, we can no longer avoid confronting the consequences of our collective greed and indifference.

We have severely polluted the soil, ponds, lakes, rivers, oceans, and the atmosphere–all of which are ultimately necessary for our survival as a species. These pollutants have affected nearly every life form on the planet with extremely few exceptions, and possibly a few extremophiles, such as those that live in thermal springs or under polar ice.

Perhaps our own best chances for survival are the new and fascinating disciplines which constitute synthetic biology. The possibilities which these approaches present are both extraordinarily exciting and, at the same time, rather sad, for it will mean that we shall begin to give direction to the evolutionary processes rather than letting nature randomly experiment. Clearly, even partial control has the promise of large benefits to humans, but it also imposes enormous moral obligations upon us both for ourselves and for the other creatures of planet Earth. To date, we have a very poor record in meeting our moral obligations as a species on a fragile planet.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


Our busy and productive editor Dave Walker has just recently won another award, this time an Honorable Mention in the Olympus Bioscapes International Digital Imaging Competition.  Congratulations, Dave.  Everyone should visit the site as there are lots of wonderfully impressive images to be enjoyed.  




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