Bad Science: Say That Twice, With A Straight Face

Some bad science writers just make it too easy.

The other day, I come across an article that someone posted on Facebook. It was entitled Science Finally Confirms That People Absorb Energy From Others!

Of course you do not have to be a scientist to know that is complete bullshit. Oh dear, I thought, this is one of those rabbit holes that I cannot resist falling into. What new study has been twisted and perverted to fit this narrative today, I wonder? Will they name the scientist that “made the discovery”? Will they just give the name of an institute, and I’ll have to comb through their publications to find the culprit? Or perhaps is the aforementioned “science” performed by just some quack in a yurt in Arizona somewhere?

Where is this article going to fall on my 1-10 Bad Science Bullshit-o-Meter? So, I clicked on it. Of course I did.

If you don’t want to click on it I get it, so let me just quote the first two lines, because that’s the absolute best part.


A biological research team at Bielefeld University has made a groundbreaking discovery showing that plants can draw an alternative source of energy from other plants. This finding could also have a major impact on the future of bioenergy eventually providing the evidence to show that people draw energy from others in much the same way.


You’re going to have to give me a moment.


OK, that’s better.

Well, that was a first for me. Your title is such utter and complete bullshit that you can’t even repeat it in the post itself with a straight face. We just went from “Science confirms human beings absorb energy from each other!” to “Scientists did one experiment on plants that we think is cool because maybe someday it could potentially perhaps lead to a similar experiment in humans in the future… maybe”.

They managed to surprise me though, by linking to the actual article. Score 1 point for that. Furthermore, it is published in Nature Communications, which is about as reputable a peer-reviewed scientific journal as you can get. So, let’s take a look. Will it mention humans anywhere? Will it speculate on the translational aspect of their research? Let’s see.

The study was conducted on a unicellular microalgae called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. It is used as a model organism because it has a very wide habitat, in both terrestrial and aquatic ones. The article itself is a little dense, but I can summarize the novelty of their findings.

To understand the novelty of these findings, we first have to briefly discuss the main difference between the two categories that we commonly refer to as “animals” and “plants”. Animals are heterotrophs, which basically means that they have to “eat” their carbon. Heterotrophs get their energy from consuming molecules that come from their environment and digesting them. “Plants”, on the other hand, are autotrophs. They get their carbon from their environment too, but usually in the form of carbon dioxide, and they get their energy from photosynthesis, i.e. from sunlight.

Another basic distinction between animals and plants is their cellular structure. Plant cells contain cellulose, which among other things gives the cell its structure. Some animals can digest cellulose, and get their carbon and energy from digesting this. Other animals cannot, and get their carbon and their energy from eating other animals.

So, with this in mind, back to the paper.

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is an algae, and thus usually gets its carbon and energy from carbon dioxide and sunlight. However the researchers discovered that, when you grow these algae in low carbon dioxide conditions, they are also able to digest cellulose from their environment, essentially finding another way to get their carbon.

Basically, this little algae combines features of both plants and animals*. That is amazingly cool.

So, what are the larger implications of this research?

It shows how versatile this algae is. It shows how, every time we try to categorize life into neat little boxes, we discover an organism that wants to live in the space between those boxes. It is yet another example of both the amazing ability of evolution, and that biological life finds itself on a spectrum. Furthermore, the researchers think that this unique ability of this little algae makes it of particular interest in the development of new biofuels.

What it does not imply is anything to do with human biology, unless by human you mean the giant walking tree dudes from Lord of the Rings. In that case…. maybe.

The upsides of this bad science post are that a) it linked to the article directly and b) that I got to read a really cool paper that I would not have come across otherwise. I was about to give it a point for that, but then they concluded like this:

Bader-Lee suggests that the field of bioenergy is now ever evolving and that studies on the plant and animal world will soon translate and demonstrate what energy metaphysicians have known all along — that humans can heal each other simply through energy transfer just as plants do. “Human can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature. That’s why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people,” she concluded.

Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. -10000 for that.

But my scale is 0-10, so, unfortunately, these guys just scored a 0. New York Times, you’re still doing much better by comparison.


*You might now be thinking, well, what about carnivorous plants? Don’t they also eat things? The main difference between this algae and carnivorous plants is why they “eat”. Carnivorous plants evolved the ability to digest insects because they grow in soil that lacks nutrients, particularly nitrates. So, when they digest a bug, they are doing so to access nitrogen. The bug is not a substitute for carbon dioxide, and they do not get carbon from those meals. That might seem like a silly distinction, but it is a critical one, and the reason why this algae is both unique and of particular interest in the development of biofuel. For more clarification on this, look up and compare the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. If it is something many want further discussion on, I will have to make a whole new blog post about it.


  1. quotetheunquote says

    I saw this headline, and thought – well, duh! Talk about your “dog bites man” story.

    I live with a person. I absorb energy from her all the time – and she, from me. Mostly on winter nights, when she comes into the bed and sticks those g$%&!!! freezing feet on me.

  2. blf says

    Thanks for the explanation of “animal” vs “plant”; I now realize I was, at least in part, getting tangled-up by the carnivorous plants example.

    The OP seems to imply animals are either plant-eaters or animal-eaters, which ignores omnivores (at least). I presume this is just an oversight (or a poor reading on my part)?

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I say that animals can either digest cellulose or they can’t. However, just because an animal can’t digest cellulose, that doesn’t mean that they don’t eat plants. For example humans cannot digest cellulose, which is why we cannot eat grass and we consider lettuce to have “no calories”. In humans cellulose acts as a bulking agent which facilitates digestion, so it is important that we eat it, but we cannot break down cellulose into simple sugars and then use those sugars for energy and as a source of carbon, like cows can. Humans expel cellulose, and instead have to get their carbon from other kinds of molecules, like starch or other animals.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … when you grow these algae in low carbon dioxide conditions, they are also able to digest cellulose from their environment…

    So, they eat other plants. Each other? Other micro-algae? Live ones? Dead ones? Little baby ones?

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      So, this study was conducted in a lab. Basically, they demonstrated that:
      1) the algae can sense cellulose in their environment
      2) they can respond by secreting cellulose-digesting enzymes
      3) these enzymes are functional and do indeed break down cellulose
      4) they can uptake the digested products, and
      5) use them for growth.

      That already is pretty impressive in itself. But as far as what happens when they are in the wild under low-CO2 conditions? I cannot say. The point is they can digest and eat cellulose that is around them, alive or dead would not make much difference. The follow-up experiment would thus be to see how strong these enzymes are, and at what concentrations they can be secreted, so as to see if they are able to eat other live microalgae

      • Pierce R. Butler says

        … algae can sense cellulose in their environment

        Hmmm – that by itself opens up all sorts of questions.

        Presumably the reactions they use concerning their own internal cellulose do not trigger the enzymes in question, so further research on this will probably add to the stack of papers on immune-system evolution that Michael Behe says doesn’t exist.

        And where in nature, in the last several hundred million years, would you find low-CO2 environments (particularly ones suitable for microalgae)? Has this phenomenon lurked in genetic reserve since the pre-Ediacaran?

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          I wouldn’t say it lurked. This particular microalgae has a very wide range of habitats, and that in itself is unusual for microalgae. This particular species can inhabit both aquatic and terrestrial environments, and being able to extend your reach that far does usually come hand in hand with evolving new and different ways to survive. Soil can certainly be a place where CO2 levels might drop, for instance. You have to remember that we’re talking about a 10micrometer microalgae, the CO2 levels just need to be low in its immediate vicinity for it to be affected by it.

          As for their own cellulose triggering the enzymes, this particular microalgae has a cell wall consisting of glycoproteins, but that’s actually why they thought it was weird for it to have cellulose-digesting enzymes. Many algae have the proteins to digest cellulose because they have to remodel their cell walls. But this microalgae doesnt have a cellulose wall, so they asked themselves, what does it need cellulose-digesting enzymes for?
          Remember that cells and animals are capable of digesting molecules in a controlled and targeted way without self-destructing. Think of snakes being able to digest bones and hooves without digesting themselves, for instance.

  4. A. Noyd says

    studies on the plant and animal world will soon translate and demonstrate what energy metaphysicians have known all along — that humans can heal each other simply through energy transfer just as plants do.

    You could get a frog to hop to the moon with this many leaps in logic. If the “energy” that “energy metaphysicians” refer to wasn’t imaginary, it would have already been measured and described using normal physics. Physics is very, very good at measuring and describing real energy. It can even describe imaginary energy if the concept is consistent enough—which this ain’t.

    And if humans do “just as plants do” in this case, wouldn’t that mean eating the people around us?

  5. enkidu says

    Beaten by A.Noyd!
    You can absorb energy from people if you eat them!
    ps Good to see you are posting again.

      • A. Noyd says

        Whoops, hit post too early. Meant to add: And since I work in a middle school, I’m a little bloody minded already. Kids that age can be brutal to one another, if not quite to the level of literally eating one another.

  6. says

    Awesome. The word “energy” seems to be irresistible woo-bait. I’m reminded of my favorite not-real-but-it-should-be Star Trek episode. (TOS, of course. Because, c’mon.)

    Kirk, Spock, and McCoy arrive on a planet with vast, eerily empty cities and no sign of what became of the inhabitants. Stranger still, there are enormous boulders perched precariously on all the hilltops of the surrounding countryside.

    “Where did everyone go?” asks Kirk.

    “What in blazes happened here?” demands McCoy.

    “Gentlemen, the explanation is obvious,” replies Spock archly. “The inhabitants have all become beings of pure potential energy.”

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