The Earth's Elder

By Sean Carroll | April 8, 2009 8:51 am

The largest organism on Earth, and probably the oldest multicellular organism, is named Pando. Kind of a cutesy name for such an impressive specimen, don’t you think?

800px-aspenoverview0172.JPG

If you were to meet Pando — which you could easily do, if you paid a visit to Fishlake National Forest in Utah — it would look like a forest of Quaking Aspen trees. But if you happened to be equipped to do DNA testing on plant specimens, you would realize that all of the trees were genetically identical. That’s because they’re all part of the same tree, sharing a common root system. One tree springs from a seed, long ago, and spreads out roots; but then more trees erupt from those roots, and the process simply continues. Individual “trees” might die, but that’s like you or me losing a toenail; Pando lives on. It weighs in at over six million kilograms, and is likely more than 80,000 years old (although it might be much older).

I have nothing especially profound to say about Pando, I just think it’s cool. But when you have arrow-of-time on the brain, everything resonates. Unlike most other multicellular organisms, there’s no reason why Pando should ever die, absent dramatic external factors. As long as its environment remains hospitable, Pando could live forever. Monocellular organisms, of course, do this all the time; they split into “children” which are genetically identical (up to mutations), so it’s legitimate to say that any given bacterium has lived for many millions of years. The birth/growth/death cycle is not absolutely necessary to the existence of life — it’s just useful, if life wants to avoid the very real possibility that the environment does dramatically change for the worse. Giving birth to children with slightly different genetic makeups — and then getting out of their way, by dying — gives the species a fighting chance to adapt and survive in the face of dramatic changes around it. (Update: some termites have a different strategy.)

Meanwhile, Pando abides. Good for it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • Pingback: Quick Hit: Pando « Fineness & Accuracy

  • http://forwearemany.wordpress.com/ Adam

    Utah? Pah. The largest organism is in Oregon! Or at least it is by one measure:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Largest_organism

  • Pingback: The Earth’s Elder | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine « skin hunger

  • http://www.math.brown.edu/~lubinj Jonathan Lubin

    Ummm, “quivering ash”? You probably meant Quaking Aspen. Ash is Fraxinus, Aspen is Populus. They’re nothing like.

  • http://quantumdegenerates.blogspot.com/ Andy

    I am not an expert, but I think that, from a gene’s-eye-view, the benefit of sexual reproduction is still a bit of a mystery. In Dawkins’s Selfish Gene book, he argues that selection takes place at the level of the gene. A gene only cares about what happens to the species up to the point that it benefits itself; but in sexual reproduction, a gene only has 50% chance of being passed on.

    Why are we not all asexual and immortal?

  • Pingback: Pando: Earth's Largest and Oldest Multicellular Organism | The Starnes

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Jonathan, you’re right, of course. How in the world did my brain turn “Quaking Aspen” into “Quivering Ash”? I’ll fix it.

  • Paul

    Here’s to linking to stuff that’s cool.

  • funguy

    don’t forget about this giant
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armillaria_ostoyae

    probably doesn’t rival in age, but certainly contends for the biomass record

  • http://arcsecond.wordpress.com meichenl

    I don’t understand the logic on why Pando should be able to live forever. Shouldn’t it be suseptible to aging like anything else? Pando still loses genetic information over time due to mutations. Eventually it should lose too much and become unviable. Having one root system and many trees does not seem fundamentally different from one tree and many branches. Just because a branch can die while the tree lives on does not mean the tree is immortal.

  • johnn costello

    what about creosote

  • http://aclinks.wordpress.com Successful Researcher

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  • Supernova

    (Geek alert!) They should have named it Fangorn.

  • Pingback: A big frakking plant « A Man With A Ph.D.

  • Sili

    Make up your mind. Is an aspen or an elder?

  • Brian

    meichenl: One difference is that with a single-trunked tree, the organism still has a single point of dependency, i.e. the trunk. A forest fire (or a few minutes with a chainsaw) can still take out the whole. Pando does not appear to have any single sub-part upon which everything else depends, so presumably a forest fire would have to consume nearly all tree stems in 100+ acres order for Pando to not survive. It’s still a possibility, of course, but the odds just don’t compare to that of a single-stem tree.

    Mutation is ultimately a concern, but not on the kind of time scales we’re usually talking about with trees. And even then, harmful mutations are unlikely to get preserved in the long term, as natural selection works its inexorable logic on the cells of each part of the organism.

  • Ellipsis

    Could probably feed all the fireplaces in the U.S. for an evening…

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  • http://rightshift.info Dileep

    While relatively immune to mild forest fires and such, a single disease which the particular gene makeup is susceptible to, can wipe the whole being off the face of the Earth. However, a Telomere count at various parts of the thing would be an interesting exercise.

  • Q

    >> Andy, I’m not an expert too but:
    I supose in long range scale sexual reproduction could be better than asexual even from the gene’s point of view. The point is that in asexual reproduction genes change faster than in sexual. But they don’t like do so;) They’d like to be remain unchanged. The sexual reproduction colud be the measure to gain higher rate of permanence.

  • Thomas

    Impressive that it could survive the climate shift from an ice age to an interglacial.

  • Jason Dick

    Andy,

    I am not an expert, but I think that, from a gene’s-eye-view, the benefit of sexual reproduction is still a bit of a mystery. In Dawkins’s Selfish Gene book, he argues that selection takes place at the level of the gene. A gene only cares about what happens to the species up to the point that it benefits itself; but in sexual reproduction, a gene only has 50% chance of being passed on.

    Why are we not all asexual and immortal?

    It’s been hypothesized (I don’t know how much evidence is yet available) that sexual reproduction in plants and animals arose as a result of competition against parasites. Parasites, with such dramatically faster reproductive cycles, can easily out-evolve their hosts. If the next generation has the same genetic makeup as the previous, then the parasites just continue to evolve while the hosts’ immune system stays nearly the same, and the hosts die.

    If, by contrast, the hosts engage in recombination, then the genetic makeup of their descendants is different, and the parasites are forced to evolve all over again to survive in the presence of their new host. This gives sexually-produced young an advantage.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “I am not an expert, but I think that, from a gene’s-eye-view, the benefit of sexual reproduction is still a bit of a mystery. In Dawkins’s Selfish Gene book, he argues that selection takes place at the level of the gene. A gene only cares about what happens to the species up to the point that it benefits itself; but in sexual reproduction, a gene only has 50% chance of being passed on.”

    While it is fine that for people who don’t work in the field, Dawkins is the first word on
    evolution, he shouldn’t be the last word. Note that his “selfish gene” idea is NOT
    universally accepted among researchers in the field, at least not with the enthusiasm
    he has for it.

    See, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus THE STRUCTURE OF EVOLUTIONARY
    THEORY. I’m sure he has also discussed this at a less technical level in some of his
    natural history essays, but I don’t have the titles offhand.

    Note: Gould’s side of the story might, of course, be biased in Gould’s favour, but it is
    certainly not more biased than Dawkins’s version. Gould explicitly addresses Dawkins’s
    view; I don’t know if Dawkins has ever responded and addressed Gould’s view.

  • Stephan McCandliss

    Biological systems aside; the similarities of a massive root ball or fungal mycelium to the “Web” are striking and beg the question, “Is the internet alive?” It certainly is massive, growing and evolving.

  • blueshifter

    I think saying that a bacterium is ‘millions of years old’ and we are not is making an essentialist mistake. We are, every single multicellular organism (MCO), in a very real sense, nothing more than a colony of genetically identical bacteria. If we reproduce, we never die, the germ line goes on and regenerates another MCO as an offspring, just with some admixture of genetic data from our species’ gene pool. But even after the sex, the majority of the genetic code is just like the parent. but the life itself, is as old as the age of the event when life originated. And this is true for every living cell/bacteria on the planet. So, happy 3.6 billionth birthday, everybody (give or take)!!!

    See what i mean? to say that MCO are different from Unicellulars begs the question ‘how’? The distinction implied in your post seems to be sexual vs. asexual reproduction. What about lateral gene transfer then? does that break the magic line of how much genetic difference constitutes a ‘new’ organism? diploidy? single point mutation? it’s all arbitrary. we can put labels on it for convenience’s sake; but really – we are all really, really, really old.

  • John R Ramsden

    Compared with this, the 5000 year old Fortingall Yew Tree in Scotland, which also clones itself by root propagation, is barely into its teens!

    Following on from Thomas’s point above, I thought most of Utah was covered in glaciers during the last ice age, and the remainder covered by Lake Bonneville (whose remnant is the Salt Lake that gives its name to Salt Lake City). But evidently there must have been a few patches of vegetation here and there, including this oversized bush.

  • Concerned Skeptic

    Has anyone actually done a DNA test on Pando or examine his (you know Pando is male, right?) roots? I’ve been told that no one has, but nothing I’ve read so far appears to answer the question either way.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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