Die Urpflanze ?: Cyanobacterial diversity

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Cyanobacteria are aquatic and photosynthetic bacteria that have been hugely important in shaping the course of evolution and the content of the Earth’s atmosphere.  The oxygen rich atmosphere upon which we depend,  was generated by vast numbers of newly arisen  photosynthetic  cyanobacteria during the Archaean and Proterozoic Eras. Before this time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry and was unsuitable for life as we know it today.  The other striking contribution of the cyanobacteria to the evolution of life is the origin of plants. The chloroplast, the organelle within the cells of plants which carries out photosynthesis,  actually  derives from a cyanobacterium living within the plant’s cells. At some point in the late Proterozoic, or in the early Cambria periods, cyanobacteria became resident within eukaryote cells, making food for the eukaryote host in return for a home, in an event known as endosymbiosis.

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.  Because of their role in the origin of all plant life, cyanobacteria must be one vital component of Goethe’s imagined species.


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