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Transcript – Symbiosis as Co-Creativity

by | 20 Oct, 2022 | Collaboratory Podcast, Resources, Transcripts

To ensure accessibility we are committed to providing transcripts of all our podcast episodes, including our short trailer for Season 1 – you can listen to the audio version here.

Episode 6: Symbiosis as Co-Creativity

[00:00:00] Celeste Linde: Collaboration in terms of biology might be better described as a symbios. So, it’s an interaction between say, plants and fungi to make something completely different, like in the case of lichens, where you have say, a bacteria and fungi growing together and produce something completely different to individual partners in that symbiosis. Lichens can then persist in environments where either the fungus or the blue green algae by itself cannot persist at all. Basically, their ecology has expanded dramatically just by being in a symbiosis. 

[00:00:44] Maya Haviland: Welcome to Collaboratory. I’m Maya Haviland. One of the challenges of advocating for co-creative practice, is that many of the ways our organizations and social systems are designed are based on the assumption that competition is a primary driver of innovation and creative adaptation.

The roots of this thinking can be found in classical economics and further back in scientific understandings of evolution. You know, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the competition and survival of the fittest explanation of evolution. And whilst competition is certainly a force that influences adaptation and creative change in human and more than human systems, research into the symbiotic relationships between species in natural systems has caused a quiet revolution in our understanding of what enables resilience and adaptation.

Rather than competition between species being the most important driver of adaptation, we are now coming to understand that the dynamics of cooperation and care are as important. The research that is led to this change in thinking has largely focused on fungi, those shape shifting transformation, enabling organisms that constitute an entire kingdom of life in the Western classification of things, but which have been relegated to a side branch of biology for much of scientific history.

In my research into the scaffolds of co-creativity, I’ve sought out those who can be considered master practitioners of co-creation, and fungi are without doubt, masterful facilitators of symbiosis and transformation in the organic world. So today on Colaboratory, we’re going to focus on what the science of symbiosis and fungi in particular can teach us about the dynamics of co-creativity with two of my colleagues here at the Australian National University, let’s meet our first guest.

[00:02:43] Celeste Linde: My name is Celeste Linde. I work at the Australian National University where I study fungi and fungal interactions with plants mostly. 

[00:02:51] Maya Haviland: I asked Celeste to begin by explaining from her point of view as a biologist what some of the words that shape the focus of this podcast mean to her, starting with the words “collaboration” and “creativity”.

[00:03:05] Celeste Linde: Collaboration in terms of biology might be better described as a symbiosis. So, it’s a togetherness of two entities or a growing together of two entities, and those two entities obviously are both living. So, it’s an interaction between say, plants and fungi to either make something completely different, like in a case of lichens where you have, say, a bacteria and fungi growing together and you have an end result of a lichen, which can’t exist without either of those patterns, or it’s a growing together of fungi and a tree root, for instance, to make a mycorrhizal interaction that helps a plant grow better. Creativity would be evolution. Either evolution of new traits or new genes or altering or changing of, of genes to make organisms better adapted to say new environments or new pressures that might be upon them. 

[00:03:59] Maya Haviland: The big word which our podcast is centered around is “co-creativity”, so I asked Celeste if this is a word that she uses. 

[00:04:07] Celeste Linde: I never use that word, or have not before, but I guess you could see it as both entities in the symbiosis, like for instance, if we talk about plants and fungi, co-creativity would be where both the plant and the fungus evolve and change to either adapt to each other or to environments and become something slightly different.

[00:04:31] Maya Haviland: Now, I have to declare right up front that I’ve become something of a fungi obsessive. Not perhaps as much as Celeste who literally spends her days hunting for fungi, growing, and studying it. But like many people around the world, I’ve become enthralled with the emergent understandings of the role that fungi play in our organic and living systems.

When I told my co-host Nicole, I was going to devote an entire episode of Collaboratory to fungi, she raised her eyebrows and said, a little wryly, that she looked forward to hearing. So, here it is. The thing is, when I’m explaining what I mean by co-creativity, and why it is something we need to study and understand more closely, it can help some people to think about the example of symbiosis that Celeste just shared, that of lichen, organisms created by the symbiotic relationship of two species, that together make something new more than a simple sum of its parts. Celeste Linde. 

[00:05:30] Celeste Linde: So, lichens is, combination of blue green algae and a fungus that comes together and produce something completely different to individual partners in that symbiosis.

In this coming together, lichens can then persist in environments where either the fungus or the blue green algae by itself cannot persist at all. So, you often see lichens on rocks, on stems of trees, but they’re not necessarily pathogenic, they just sit on the surface on stones, on houses, on every kind of surface where you wouldn’t imagine a fungus can grow.

There’s no way that a fungus can grow on a rock by itself ’cause it needs carbon, organic material, to survive, but the ability or the association with the blue green algae gives the lichen, the opportunity to photosynthesize. Cause blue, green algae can actually photosynthesize just like plants can, and so that makes carbon for the lichen, which enables it to grow on these non-carbon surfaces. Basically, the ecology has expanded dramatically just by being in a symbiosis. 

[00:06:38] Maya Haviland: We see all sorts of examples in the natural world of symbiotic collaborations between different organisms that expand their capacities, enable them to live in more diverse places, help access and use nutrients and resources differently, or acquire capacities that a single organism couldn’t do alone, but I’m getting ahead of myself, I think. Let’s meet our other guest in today’s episode. 

[00:07:04] Merryn McKinnon: My name is Dr. Merryn McKinnon. I am a senior lecturer at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, and I tend to rummage around in things like science in the media, health promotion, really looking at why people respond to scientific issues the way that they do.

[00:07:23] Maya Haviland: Merryn is one of my colleagues at the ANU who specialize in communicating scientific knowledge to non-scientists like me. So, I asked her to give us a little 101 lesson on the science of symbiosis. 

[00:07:35] Merryn McKinnon: Okay, well symbiosis, the name, comes from ancient Greek “living together”, and so symbiosis is really looking at the ways that different organisms coexist and relate to and with each other over a period of time. And there are basically five kind of main ways that we can exist or coexist. These relationships might benefit one organism and not the other. It could benefit both. 

[00:08:03] Maya Haviland: The five most common forms of symbiotic relationships are known as mutualism, commensalism, competition, parasitism, and predation. 

[00:08:15] Merryn McKinnon: So, mutualism means that two things are coexisting. Um, so different species that live together and both benefit. And so, you see this a lot in coral reef environments, for example. So, you know, if you’ve ever seen finding Nemo, the clown fish lives within the anemone and so the anemone to any other fish species has stinging tentacles, and that obviously is very harmful to anything that gets stung, that’s how the anemone gets food, but the clown fish has a protective coating, but they’re also very popular on the menu for other species. And so the clown fish can stay with inside the anemone and it gets that protection. And anything that comes looking to try and eat the clown fish, then the anemone gets the food. So, that’s something where both benefit. 

Then we have something like commensalism, which means where one benefits and the other one, yeah, doesn’t really matter, doesn’t bother them too much. So, there’s a certain type of bacteria that lives in your nose, and in your oral tracts, doesn’t do us any harm and we are just providing nice real estate for that bacterium to live and survive.

Then we have competition. So, that’s exactly as it says on the tin, something competing with something else, and this can happen both within the same species and between species. And humans are very good at competing with pretty much every species for natural resources. But certainly, if you look at birds trying to find ideal nesting sites or access to food and mates and those kinds of things. 

Parasitism is also one that we’re quite familiar with. If you or a pet has ever had worms, you know that the worm is taking all the nutrition that you are consuming, and eventually you’ll notice either you are feeling sick, losing weight, or your pet is feeling sick and losing weight. And so, if you have a parasitic infection, it may not kill you, it could over time, but that parasitic infection is really benefiting the parasite and not the host.

And then finally you have predation, which is where one thing is eating something else very quickly, but it still exists in a balance because when you have a predator, they need that prey in order to survive, and if they overuse that prey, they take too much, then they’re really cutting off their own food source.

And so with all of these relationships, and in any ecological relationship, everything is very finely balanced and depends on everything else. Symbiotic relationships can really be an indicator of overall ecosystem health. I’m gonna stick to a marine environment because that’s where I, that’s where I’m comfortable, but certainly looking at the interactions between species and the types of interactions that are there can give you a sense of the overall health. So, if you think of an image of a coral reef, for example, you’ll see beautiful colors in the coral, and that’s actually created by a symbiotic relationship between the hard coral and the color comes from zooxanthellae.

[00:11:07] Maya Haviland: Zooxanthellae are algae that live in a mutualistic relationship inside coral and create the colors that see.

[00:11:15] Merryn McKinnon: But with rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching, that’s not the coral itself dying. That’s the Zooxanthellae dying off. And so if you are seeing a whole bunch of bleached coral, that means that those relationships aren’t there in the same amount, which indicates that there is something that’s wrong.

Similarly, if you have one area of a coral reef that’s full of crown-of-thorns starfish, that’s something where it’s really gone awry, and you are getting a dominance of one species at the expense of all of the others. So, all relationships can tell you something about what’s going on in the bigger picture.

[00:11:51] Maya Haviland: The wellbeing of different parts of a collaborative relationship can indeed be an indicator of things going on in the bigger system in which it’s situated. That’s as true in human relationships as it is in coral reefs. Many of us could think of examples from our own human experiences where the different kinds of symbiotic relationships Merryn has outlined have played out.

I’ve been part of co-creative projects where there’s been a clear mutual benefit to all involved, others where the process and outcomes of collaboration are highly significant to one party and less important to others. And of course, many of us have lived through variations on parasitism where one party is benefiting way more than others, sometimes at significant cost to the wellbeing of everyone.

Now I know that I’m treading on thin ice in applying science developed from observations of non-human systems to dynamics that play out in our human ones but thinking about symbiotic relationships in non-human contexts can make it easier to look closely at co-creative dynamics in human ones. 

The value exchange playing out in a symbiotic relationship between a particular fish and an anemone can be much easier to analyze and even talk about than a relationship with one’s own human collaborators. As I’ve delved into the rich world of symbiosis and fungi, it turns out I’m far from alone in drawing parallels between the co-creativity of fungus and that of humans.

The well-known scholar of fungi, Merlin Sheldrake, author of the book, “Entangled Life”, has argued that drawing parallels and metaphors between human and non-human experiences may have its perils, but can also be a valuable way to talk about what things are like and what they are not. So, this episode of Collaboratory is offered in that spirit as an invitation to think a while through fungus, to see what it might or might not illuminate about dynamics of co-creativity.

Now that we’ve touched on the basics of symbiosis, let’s focus on the stars of today’s show. Fungi. Why is fungus so fascinating and important? What special superpowers do they have? Celeste Linde. 

[00:14:02] Celeste Linde: Well, fungi has everything really that we need. Without fungi, we won’t have a world like we have today. We as just people roaming this earth, don’t normally see exactly what the fungi do, ’cause it’s all mostly at a microscopic level or a gene interaction level, but these fungi play a hugely important role in shaping our vegetation, shaping our diversity. 

So, fungi, you can basically classify into both the good and the bad. Um, I’ll start with the good first. So, the good fungi are the ones that help plan to grow better. In that case, I talk about mycorrhizal fungi, which take up nutrients from the soil, provide that to the plant, so the plant basically grows better. So, “mycor” in the mycorrhizal means, uh, fungus and “rhizal” means root. So, it’s the combination of the fungus and the root, which makes it mycorrhizal. The plant can grow without the fungus, but just grows much better with the fungus. It also has some other benefits. So, some mycorrhizal fungi might protect the plants from disease, so makes it little sheath around the roots so that pathogens can’t infect the roots.

[00:15:15] Maya Haviland: We’ll hear a bit more about mycorrhizal fungi shortly, but what other kinds of fungi are there? 

[00:15:20] Celeste Linde: We have things like saprophytes. Now, saprophytes is just a fungus that grow on dead organic material. It basically recycles nutrients from those organic material back to the soil. There’s also fungi that are pathogenic, so these fungi often have a particular association with particular plant species, so will only attack or infect particular plant species. And as these fungi build up in the environment, it will obviously reduce the number of the susceptible plant species in that environment. So, you get a biological control so that one plant species don’t necessarily dominate. Both the aboveground pathogens and below ground pathogens as, as well as mycorrhizal basically promotes biodiversity out in our ecosystems. 

We also have fungi that we called endophytes. Endophytes are things we don’t normally see and, and not many people worry or think about endophytes, but endophytes are in most plants. Uh, they just sitting inside the tissue. It can be either in the leaf, in the steam, or in the twigs, or even the roots. The function of endophytes is not entirely clear. We think they do help the plants in terms of making them perhaps a bit more drought tolerant or maybe help them to be a bit more resistant against insect attack. But of course, in every plant there’s many different fungi that could be classified as endophytes, and not every fungus has the same function. So, there’s very little that we know about exactly what this fungi do, and there’s a huge gap in our knowledge. The endophytes is not only fungi, endophytes are also bacteria. And one could imagine, or you could regard your gut microbiome or your gut bacteria perhaps as endophytes, ’cause they sit there and they do stuff that you don’t necessarily know of, and it’s very important to have a diverse gut microbiome. 

[00:17:14] Maya Haviland: I just wanna pause for a second here because learning about endophytes kind of blew my mind. What Celeste just said is that there is fungus or bacteria living symbiotically inside almost every plant, and whilst the science may still be out on the diverse roles that endophytes play within plants, what we do know is that sometimes their presence can be basically benign, a remnant of evolution, and at other times they can serve really important functions for a offering unique capacities of one sort or another that can be critical to adapting to a specific environment. And as Celeste has said, plants are not the only creatures with symbiotic relationships going on within them. Humans, you and I, have a diversity of bacteria living in our guts that are absolutely crucial to the functioning of our bodies.

Merlin Sheldrake has written that all plants, fungi, and animals are composite beings to some extent. In other words, most living organisms we think of as discrete, including human beings, are literally formed by sustained co-creative arrangements across species. And it is these symbiotic associations that frequently enable the capacities needed for adaptation and resilience in the face of change and challenge.

So, let’s return to Celeste Linde, and her research on fungi. 

[00:18:38] Celeste Linde: So, I started off from being a plant pathologist to looking much more into the microshizal associations because they’re just so absolutely fascinating and orchid mycorrhizae is probably the most fascinating of them all because orchid seed can’t germinate without being colonized by its compatible mycorrhizal fungus.

Orchid seed have no endosperm, so it doesn’t have the resources to start germinating and produce little plant. It needs to be colonized by a fungus that gifts the seeds some carbon and nutrients for you to grow into a little plant. And so, interaction that the orchid seed needs from a fungus is just absolutely amazing.

Some orchids, we’ve figured out how to grow them in culture, so in a Petri dish. So, give them basically a nutrients through the agar in the Petri dish, that supplement or substitute what the fungus would’ve given them. But in nature, they mostly require a fungus to colonize the seed for them to grow. And that fungus might persist until the orchard last day of life, or it might change into a different fungus that starts colonizing the, the plant to give it all the nutrients it requires. So, in many cases, there’s actually a shift, the fungi that helps the orchard to germinate, it’s not necessarily the same fungi that will be in the adult plants. So, it’s a dynamic, uh, interaction and it can change all the time. 

[00:20:04] Maya Haviland: For the most part, orchids need these relationships with the fungus for their very existence across generations, but what’s in it for the fungi? 

[00:20:13] Celeste Linde: So, especially in orchid microshizal fungi, the fungus does not need the orchid at all. It can grow by itself as a saprophyte, in other words, from dead organic material, but by associating with the orchid, it gets a home, it gets a better protection in terms of stability, in terms of some water resources that it might get through the plant. It also gets carbon from the plant, so the plant photosynthesizes and give some of that carbon to the mycorrhizal fungus. 

Interestingly in some of the orchids that are what we call mycotrophic, in other words, they don’t have green leaves or green tissue, so they can’t photosynthesize and they’re obviously really reliant on fungi to give them some nutrients, but they still need to get carbon from somewhere because they can’t photosynthesize. And those fungi that associate with these leafless orchids, get their carbon from trees that grow nearby. So, they form mycorrhizal associations with a tree. The tree gives carbon to the fungus. The fungus transports that carbon to the leafless orchid. So, it’s like this tripartite relationship between fungus, plant and tree, or fungus, orchid and tree that is just absolutely fascinating. 

[00:21:29] Maya Haviland: This three-way relationship is one example of the facilitating power of mycorrhizal fungi. They enable a variety of linked systems where multiple species cooperate through the movement of resources like carbon and the sharing of particular capacities like the power of photosynthesis.

The facilitating powers of mycorrhizal fungi have really changed Western scientific understanding of the importance of dynamics of care and cooperation between species. Research in forests on multiple continents has proven these relational networks, facilitated by fungus, are essential for resilience and adaptability of the systems as a whole.

They support the wellbeing of particular species through long term arrangements like leafless orchards have with fungi and their tree partners, as well as in rapid day by day, season by season, sharing and communication between species. 

[00:22:27] Celeste Linde: They are like the telephone system between trees, so there’s a huge network underground that we don’t see, where the fungus actually relays messages from one tree to the other. For instance, if one tree is being attacked by, uh, insects, the tree might start producing some compounds that try to stop that insects from attacking them and the fungus, that’s as a mycorrhizal interaction with the roots, somehow relay that message from the one tree to the others because their mycelial networks are linked. And it might even be between different species of trees, ’cause if you get, uh, different species of trees that associated with the same fungus that message can be relayed quite effectively. And there’s heaps of research that we still need to do to understand exactly how that happens and exactly how the message is transferred from one plant to the other.

[00:23:19] Maya Haviland: If you’re interested in learning more about research into the communication and sharing of resources between tree species, I highly recommend Suzanne Simard’s book, “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest”. Part memoir, part science communication, about the insights into fungal facilitation of resilience and cooperation in forests. We’ll put some links to this in the show notes. 

What researchers like Celeste and others are exploring is the diverse ways in which fungi are master enablers and facilitators of resilience and adaptation. Despite the long history of research into symbiosis, it’s only relatively recently that Western science has embraced the nuance and complexities of co-creative dynamics in non-human systems. Now, there’s a growing recognition that cooperation and care between species may be even more important to adaptation and evolution than the much-heralded dynamic of competition. This is, of course, a simplification of the science, but what I find really useful is the insight that paying attention to the functions and roles of the facilitators, like fungi, can help us identify the enablers of symbiotic or co-creative processes and better understand how healthy and adaptive systems work.

Fungi play unique roles in facilitating symbiotic relationships, roles that have analogies to the work of human facilitators of co creativity, who work in diverse context and disciplines. They form networks across difference, facilitate communication, support the sharing of resources, and help parts of a network gain access to unique capacities from other parts, all with the result that new things can happen, or adaptations can occur.

Another example of what we’re learning from fungi, that I think has analogies in human systems, is research showing that a diversity of fungal facilitators seems to enable more resilient systems. Celeste Linde. 

[00:25:21] Celeste Linde: So, plant routes are relatively thick and coarse compared to fungal mycelium. So, plant roots don’t have the ability to go into every new can cranny and extract nutrients from the soil. Whereas the fungal mycelium can, and it has a much wider reach in the soil than the roots can have. So, it can make much better use of, of all the nutrients in the soil. The main benefits that mycorrhizae provide plants is the acquisition of nutrients, in particular phosphorus, but also some nitrogen and other smaller nutrients, or perhaps less important nutrients as well.

The thing that people tend to forget is that not every mycorrhizal fungus has the same ability to provide phosphorus or nitrogen to the plant. So, it really depends on having a bit of diversity there in terms of the fungi to enable the plant to maximize its nutrients that it can acquire. 

[00:26:16] Maya Haviland: Because of their facilitating capacities, mycorrhizal fungi are important facilitators of revegetation in disturbed ecosystems. 

[00:26:25] Celeste Linde: If we talk about revegetation, um, of tree plants, of tree species, it’s always a good idea to make sure that your tree seedlings do have mycorrhizae associated with their roots. So, when you do plant them, they already have that base or fungi that can help them, um, through tough periods. It’s not new concept at all. I think of an example here that I use in my teaching is a very old photograph taken in the 1930s or forties in US where there was a plantation of, of two species. One side of the plantation had seedlings inoculated with mycorrhizae, on the other side, not, and the difference in tree growth was just phenomenal. The problem is that we don’t often necessarily do that, especially not in forestry, unless it happens, um, accidentally. We don’t necessarily add the micro mycorrhizae the seedlings, so we have better trees in the end. 

[00:27:19] Maya Haviland: There are all sorts of challenges to using fungus to intentionally help plants grow better, which scientists like Celeste are working on. You need to identify the right kind of fungus that associate usefully with particular plants. You then need to be able to grow it in a lab and produce enough fungal spores to colonize seedling roots at scale. Just like with human facilitators and creative projects, artificially recreating conditions and scaling up can pose real challenges even when we understand how things work in a natural setting. But there is a lot of promising research going on into fungal inoculum to help with healthy plants and ecologies, not just for trees, but also for crops like wheat and barley. 

[00:28:04] Celeste Linde: So, for instance, the fungi that I work on with the orchids called serendipita type fungi, there’s some evidence that they might also help wheat and barley grow better, and these fungi would be slightly easier to cultivate in the lab to produce large amounts of inoculum that you can use in an agricultural setting. 

[00:28:24] Maya Haviland: Rather than aiming on making them grow more, inoculating with the right fungi may facilitate plants to grow better, to be more resilient or better adapted for certain conditions. 

[00:28:36] Celeste Linde: Rather than just having nutrients added in terms of fertilizer, you would also get some disease protection. On the other hand, those fungal communities in the soil might become endophytes that we don’t see, but they might have an effect in terms of facilitating a bit of drought tolerance or even a bit of disease protection against the plant. So, uh, really when you look at soil biology, the more diverse microbiology you have in the soil, the better that soil is for plant growth. 

[00:29:05] Maya Haviland: I don’t want to labor the analogies between human and fungal facilitators as I do think we should appreciate fungi on their own terms, not just as our teachers, but the value of having more numerous and diverse facilitators supporting co-creativity across differences of culture and discipline is something that we are recognizing in human organizations and institutions of many kinds. So, I do believe that there are still many insights we can glean for our human practice from the science of symbiosis in general, and fungi in particular, insights into the conditions that support the often-invisible work of facilitators, as well as the importance of recognizing their unique enabling capacities.

As a gardener, I love the idea of a fungal inoculum to facilitate access to nutrients and adaptive capacities for a plant in its new location, but it turns out there are risks with this approach, similar to the risks of hiring in external consultants to support the establishment of new projects and initiatives in a local community or organization. 

[00:30:09] Celeste Linde: You can already buy some mycorrhizal fungi from stores. Unfortunately, most of them, if not all, are highly ineffective, and that’s because they don’t have the fungi in them that they claim they have. And usually, the fungi that they claim they have are not even from Australia. There’s, uh, bisecurity kind of issues there as well.

[00:30:35] Maya Haviland: And with that reminder, that context and the right kind of facilitation matters for effective co-creativity, whether we’re talking about human communities, plants, or fungus, we come to the end of the show. 

Collaboratory is written, edited, and produced by me, Maya Haviland with production and editorial assistance from Nicole Cooper Deen. Audio Engineering by Nick McCorriston. Music made, especially for us by Seprock. 

Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, and Ngunawal people. We pay our respects and ongoing gratitude to the custodians past, present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn. 

Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-Creativity Project hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship scheme.