Die Urpflanze: speculations on the origin of plants


Shortly before Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen in 1790, he was exploring the concept of the Urpflanze, which he speculated was an archetypal prototypical plant, that contained within it, all the plants of the past, present and future. Whilst there is no reference to this speculative Ur-Plant in his book, it is described (as below) in his letters to Charlotte von Stein which were 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)?”

If we extend Goethe’s concept of the primordial botanical entity, to our current understanding of evolution and contemporary science, then a type of microbiological life, the Cyanobacteria,  seem close to what he initially envisaged in many respects. In this context, the process of photosynthesis evolved in this group of bacteria, as did the ability to make the important plant structural polysaccharide cellulose. Indeed, the chloroplast, the organelle within plant cells which carries out photosynthesis, actually derives from a process called endosymbiosis, where in the distant biological past, a cyanobacterium would have gained access to the cytoplasm of a primordial plant cell, and conferred upon instantly, the ability to make energy and assimilate carbon from sunlight and carbon dioxide. In a sense, this life form would contain, the latent instructions for the rich diversity of plant life that we see today, and can easily be imagined as Die Urpflanze.

The works here explore Goethe’s imagined Urpflanze and show the growth forms of various cyanobacteria when grown autotrophically  in sunlight which allows the bacteria  to autogenically generate complex, multicellular and prototypical plant forms  on sold agar surfaces.



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