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.