Shortly before Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen in 1790, he engaged with the concept of the Archetypal Plant, or the Urpflanze. Whilst there is no reference to the Urpflanze in his book, it is described in his letters to Charlotte von Stein sent by Goethe during his stay in Palermo, Italy.
“Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy suddenly came back to mind: among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant (Urpflanze)?
Die Urpflanze is Goethe’s imagined plant which contains embedded within it, the potential to generate all possible future forms of plant life. Taking inspiration from Goethe, I sought to rediscover Die Urpflanze by isolating primitive plant life, and then by a process of regressive in vitro breeding, return it to its most primitive form. This is what I generated. It contains, the bare necessities for existence, but at once, is also alive with yet unimagined potential. There is a strong resonance between my Urpflanze and Ventner’s concept of the minimal bacterial genome and Mycoplasma laboratorium, a partially synthetic bacterium. Both species are minimalist life forms containing just the genes necessary for an independent existence, yet one is a testament to the emerging powers of synthetic biology, and the other an important reminder that we should not yet forget the powers of natural selection and traditional breeding.