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How One Plus One Became Everything: A Puzzle of Life

It's one of life's great mysteries ...

Four billion years ago, or thereabouts, organic chemicals in the sea somehow spun themselves into little homes, with insides and outsides. We call them cells.

They did this in different ways, but always keeping their insides in, protected from the outside world ...

... surrounded by walls or skins of different types ...

... but letting in essentials, nutrients. Some even learned to eat sunshine, capturing energy ...

... which gave them a pulse of their own ...

... so they could move ...

.... and glow ...

Over time, they became more complicated ...

But though all this began 4 billion years ago, for some reason, and nobody knows why, all these cells, billions, trillions of them, didn't do the next obvious thing. They didn't link up.

It seems so simple. There's one of you. Why not join with another? Multicellular life has so many advantages; it not only makes you bigger and stronger, it allows you to do several things at once, complicated things like seeing or swimming or ... eventually, thinking and loving.

"More complexity was possible," writes Richard Fortey in his classic book Life, but for a puzzlingly long time — more than 70 percent of life's history on earth, all living things did was stay alone and divide. Why did it take so long for 1 plus 1 to begin? Why did it start? What changed?

The truth is, we don't know.

The mystery persists.

I asked digital artist Paolo Čerić to let me appropriate his elegant gifs for this essay. Paolo is currently a student in Zagreb, studying information processing at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Croatia and if you go to his blog, Patakk, you can see a full bouquet of his latest creations. Some of them — the ones I use here to talk about biology — are his invented forms elegantly looped; he's also got some that spring out of nowhere, others that play with already existing images, making them shudder, scramble, break apart. He says he's relatively new to digital art and animation, mostly self-taught it seems, and feeling his way, but with every month, he just gets better and better and better.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich
Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.