Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky:
Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution (edited by Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis).

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (June 15, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674050452
ISBN-13: 978-0674050457
Price: 34.99 EUR

Dusting Off an Ancient Book

Kozo-Polyansky in later life

In the 1920s, the Russian biologist Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky recognised symbiogenesis – the merging of two separate organisms to form a single new organism – as an important evolutionary tool. 86 years after the publication of his historic 1924 opus, Symbiogenesis, an English translation is available.

The US biologist Lynn Margulis is well known for her endosymbiotic theory, proposed at the end of the 1960s. In sum, it postulates that mitochondria and plastids in eukaryotes originate from bacterial endosymbionts. Some years later, in 1975, she and Peter Raven, a botanist and also a supporter of this theory, were invited to a panel session in Leningrad about the origins of chloroplasts, organised by the Armenian-Russian botanist Armen Takhtajan. It was then, Margulis and Raven plausibly assert, that they heard about Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky for the first time.

Both also claimed that it was then when they learned of the existence of one of the books written by Kozo-Polyansky half a century before, Symbiogenesis. In that meeting, Takhtajan translated small fragments of it, so they were aware of Kozo-Polyansky’s ideas, similar to theirs but published even before they were born. The complete English translation of that text has now been published by Harvard University Press and edited by Margulis and Victor Fet, a Russian zoologist and poet, who also translated for this edition.

The legacy of Kozo-Polyansky

Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky was born in 1890 and became an important botanist in his native Russia. He was a Darwinist and a supporter of symbiogenesis, a concept proposed by his fellow Russian, biologist Konstantin Mereschkowski, in the first decade of the twentieth century. The term “symbiogenesis” refers to the evolutionary origin of new organisms as a result of symbiotic association between two previously independent living beings. Kozo-Polyansky defended this view and one of the merits of his work, reflected in this book, is the large amount of bibliographical information he collected from scientific literature to support it.

He described a great number of examples where symbiosis is observed, including consortia of bacteria to multicellular organisms, such as lichens, which are associations of fungus with green algae or cyanobacterial photobionts. He linked symbiogenesis with natural selection and proposed that the origin of some of the organelles of cells were the result of these phenomena.

Historically relevant

The book can get very descriptive and it is not easy to follow almost one hundred pages of examples. But it is not only about that; what is there is also historically relevant. Kozo-Polyansky mentioned, for example, a debate involving prokaryotes, then called by different names and not yet considered cells. He cited Arthur Meyer, a prominent German biologist, who considered it, “hard to imagine that the smallest bacteria can be made of molecules”. Meyer thought that they were very small and formed by “vitules”, which were supposed to be made of muons and not electrons.

It is an amazing experience to be immersed in the cutting edge biological thought of more than a century ago. The English translation does not stand alone in this edition, which also includes important sections that make it not only historically valuable, but also provide updated information about the topic. We find editors’ commentaries throughout the book that have their own references, offering an overview of the current status of research in most of the cases mentioned. A bonus is the modern illustrations included: mainly photos and micrographs.

Some gripes remain

Even if The New Principle of Biology: An Essay on the Theory of Symbiogenesis (which is the literal translation of the Russian title) is an important work for the history and philosophy of science, there remain some gripes. Given its value as a reference for people interested in the topic, it’s inappropriate that in the introductory chapters (written by collaborators) it is implied that symbiogenesis explains the origin of eukaryotes. This is, at the very least, still debatable; and it is not the same as using it for explaining the origin of mitochondria and plastids, proven and accepted. Let’s avoid confusion and recognise the importance of symbiogenesis, but not give it a larger role in evolution than what is currently known and proved.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013