Diffractive Immunity: Remember the Future for Me | Chun-Mei Chuang

by Critical Asia

by Chun-Mei Chuang, June 2022】

Viruses are viruses.
— André Lwoff (1957: 240)

Become clandestine, make rhizome everywhere, for the wonder of a nonhuman life to be created.
— Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 191)

Cell awareness was here from the time of the origin of earliest life.
— Lynn Margulis et al. (2011: 3)

Nurturing Molecular Sensibility

As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, it has posed significant challenges to immunological research and expanded its philosophical and political horizons. The past few decades have witnessed several immunology trends, contesting the doctrinal binary of self and nonself and paying more attention to the symbiotic relationships across species and ecological connections between heterogeneous systems (Pradeu 2019: 13-20). For today’s new immunology, “a living thing can be seen as an immunologically integrated chimera” (29). The molecular turn of technosciences has allowed the emergence of a multiscale vision of immunity dynamics. Chimeras—both imaginary and evolutionary—are effects of ongoing interspecies evolution.

Chimeras are real. Life is not shy. Evolution can be violent and competitive. But cells and organisms behave in the context of their histories, their societies, communities, and bodies. They share. (Margulis et al. 2011: 4)

Sharing is beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Earth is a planet of symbiosis(Margulis 1998: 5-12). The nonlinear spiral temporality of futurist memory is inherent in our being part of planetary life. Here I discuss infection and immunity as micropolitical events that prepare us for a planetary molecular sensibility to remember a better trans-species future.

The Deleuzian Rhizome Goes Viral

The association between Deleuzian thought and molecular life sciences is well established (Marks 2006). One of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s most famous concepts, rhizome, relies on studies about the viral capacity to transfer genetic information (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 517). Deleuze and Guattari draw our attention to the paradigm shift in evolutionary biology from the traditional vertical hereditary model of “descent with modification” to a more complex picture that considers the newly discovered horizontal gene transfers (1987: 10). Interestingly, Charles Darwin often mentioned those “insensible changes” indispensable for natural selection (Darwin 1859). Deleuze praises Darwin for his “great novelty” of “inaugurating the thought of individual difference” (Deleuze 1994: 248). However, making sense of individual differences is impossible because the insensible will always be part of the sensible.

Viruses differ from cellular organisms in many crucial ways, especially their replication strategies. However, what is a virus?  This question has puzzled scientists for nearly a century. Frank MacFarlane Burnet notably says that a virus is “something which could almost be called a stream of biological patterns” (qtd. in Lwoff 1957: 248). Burnet’s concept of the immunological self is probably inspired by his revered friend Alfred North Whitehead’s processual philosophy, according to which the self is in constant flux except with the contingent endurance of “identity of pattern” (Anderson and Mackay 2014: 153). For Whitehead, the persistence of patterns, i.e., the “question of enduring organisms,” is central to modern science (Whitehead 1997/1925: 195). What exceeds the regular patterns is perceived as a transgression. Under the right circumstances, viruses are potent in transversing and reconfiguring the borders of patternings.

In a footnote for the concept of rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari carefully quote a research report by biologist Yves Christen published in 1975, indicating the potentiality and consequentiality of viral-mediated gene transfers from a more “highly evolved species” to a less evolved one.

“This mechanism, then, would run in the opposite direction to evolution in the classical sense. If it turns out that this kind of transferral of information has played a major role, we would in certain cases have to substitute reticular schemas (with communications between branches after they have become differentiated) for the bush or tree schemas currently used to represent evolution (p. 271).” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 518-19)

It turns out that lateral (horizontal) gene transfer (LGT, or HGT) is quite common and has played a significant role in the evolution of planetary life. Viral LGT is crucial in our coevolution with other species and might have contributed to the evolution of many complex structures and functions (López-García 2012; Koonin 2016). Recently, scientists reported the first known plant-to-insect LGT case in silverleaf whiteflies with a functional plant detoxification gene (Xia et al. 2021).

In prokaryotes and viruses, one can talk about “pan-genomes,” the “shared gene pool” among different species or strains. In eukaryotes, the species barriers are more substantial. However, many layers of biological organization and plural temporalities intersect in and out of different species, each with specific biological patternings. The species barrier concept is necessary for understanding the emerging zoonotic pandemics like Covid-19. The novel coronavirus somehow jumped species from nonhuman to human animals and then became a “human virus.” (Dhama et al. 2020) The species boundaries are specific configurations embodying the nonlinear trajectories of coevolving heterogenous lifeforms.  The breaching of borders is not to be taken lightly.

Regarding the formation of many layers and foldings of complex life, it has been theorized— especially with the discovery of giant viruses in 2003 — that viruses have played a significant role, even in the emergence of the eukaryotic nucleus (Koonin, Senkevich and Dolja 2006; Harris and Hill 2021). These intricate routes occur at many levels through intermediary networks. Thus, the shift from an arborescent image of evolution to a reticular conception is well-grounded, even more so in the 21st century (Brüssow 2009).

Evolution as Diffractive Mattering

Diffraction as a physical phenomenon is ubiquitous in our daily life. Water, sound, light, and even electron can behave as a wave or a particle. When waves from different sources encounter, combine, overlap, and interfere with one another, they produce a situated diffraction pattern and probably a superposition of multiple patterns. 

For Donna Haraway, diffraction is a better trope for critical thinking than reflection and refraction since diffraction is all about the production of differences through mutual interference (Haraway 1992: 300; 1997: 16). For Karen Barad, diffraction is about “the entangled nature of differences that matter” (Barad 2007: 381). In planetary diffractive politics, we co-create and become with one another. We comprehend and practice “making differences in relations,” or as Barad put it, “cutting apart/together.”

Diffraction is not a set pattern, but rather an iterative (re)configuring of patterns of differentiating-entangling. As such, there is no moving beyond, no leaving the ‘old’ behind. There is no absolute boundary between here-now and there-then. There is nothing that is new; there is nothing that is not new. Matter itself is diffracted, dispersed, threaded through with materializing and sedimented effects of iterative reconfigurings of spacetimemattering, traces of what might yet (have) happen(ed). Matter is a sedimented intra-acting, an open field. (Barad 2014: 168)

Matter is diffractive, and diffraction is mattering in nonlinear coevolving pathways. Recent experiments have confirmed that organic molecules can also produce diffraction patterns despite the pattern-destroying noise produced by complex vibrations (Brand et al. 2020). Diffraction as “a matter of differential entanglements” (Barad 2007: 381) is full of consequences. Infinite feedback loops create the temporality of diffractive mattering. Evolution as diffractive mattering resonates with the Gaia figure as a dynamic living system with endless cycles, a hybrid ecosystem of multiplicities (Margulis and Lovelock 1974). 

Mutual interference and reference in the evolution of planetary life have contributed to the observable immune memory and the co-constitution of self and nonself. Agential differential entanglements are present on every scale in evolution, where viruses often perform in secrecy with other sub/molecular agents, delivering gene sequences, composing Deleuzian rhizomes, facilitating unexpected mutations, and provoking diverse diffractive patterns of immunity.

Diffractive Patterns of Immunity

CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” is one of the most successful science stories in the early 21st century. CRISPR (Clustered, Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is the bacterial immune system against viruses, and Cas9 stands for CRISPR-associated protein 9. In a nutshell, the bacterial CRISPR system incorporates a viral-derived new spacer while destroying the invading viral genome and thereby provides sequence-specific adaptive immunity. The system’s operation mainly includes three steps, adaptation, crRNA biogenesis, and interference. The step that confuses and fascinates researchers the most is adaptation, i.e., immunization and spacer acquisition (Heler, Marraffini and Bikard 2014: 2).

Recent studies have revealed remarkable diversity in CRISPR-based immunity (Koonin, Makarova and Zhang 2017; Lemaire et al. 2022). The prokaryotes need to develop mechanisms to avoid autoimmunity since the antigenic sequences, i.e., the “nonself” recognized, have already been inserted into their memory arrays (Nussenzweig and Marraffini 2020). The distinction between self and nonself becomes problematic (Pradeu and Moreau 2019). In some cases, the system can “vaccinate” cells against “undesirable genetic elements” acquired in the process (Barrangou and Marraffini 2014). Moreover, CRISPR systems can optimize their immune response against the newest invaders by ordering spacers chronologically, deploying the so-called “differential expression” of crRNAs (CRISPR RNAs) across the array (McGinn and Marraffini 2019).

Scientists discovered in 2008 that smaller viruses, called virophages, could inflect giant viruses. In response to viral invaders, giant viruses can form a CRISPR-like system, MMIVIRE, mimivirus virophage resistance element (Levasseur et al. 2016: 250). Some researchers challenged this analogy, suggesting that MIMIVIRE is unlikely to be an adaptive immune system because it lacks critical properties of CRISPR, specifically the process of distinguishing between “self” and “nonself;” after all, virophages are “absolute parasites” of the virion factories constructed by their giant viral hosts (Claverie and Abergel 2016: 202). Another comparison is about how virophages assist cellular organisms in generating “anti-giant virus immunity.” In a co-infection system in the laboratory, where a giant virus and its virophage simultaneously infect a protist, the latter integrates the virophage genome, whose gene expression can be activated later when a giant virus superinfects the host, functioning as an agent of “adaptive immunity.” That is very similar to the CRISPR-Cas system of prokaryotes (Koonin and Krupovic 2017: 12). Of course, the analogy between the two mechanisms is incomplete, especially the degree to which foreign sequences are “domesticated.” The integrated virophage genome in the protist host is more like a symbiont than an immunity element. Viraphages display excellent genome mobility that compensates for their distinctive host requirements. Their long coevolution with viral and cellular hosts resulted in these unique adaptations (Duponchel and Fischer 2019).

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the discussion was about herd immunity. When a sufficient percentage of a population is infected with a virus and has acquired adaptive immunity, the virus can no longer continue to spread effectively. However, the high levels of mutation and immune escape exhibited by SARS-Cov-2 make this goal nearly impossible. Vaccines remain a required strategy to reduce infection rates and severe conditions. Meanwhile, the deployment of hybrid immunity—a combination of infection-acquired immunity and vaccine-acquired immunity—has become an essential research focus (Goldblatt 2022; Nordström 2022).

Remember the Future for Me

Due to molecular technologies, humans are entering a predicament of misplaced scale. Immunity and infection coevolve on every level of our planetary life. The diffractive immunity patterns get more convoluted with the evolution of lifeforms and as our extended sensory assemblages go sub/molecular. As a species with specific evolutionary historicity, we do not “see” bacteria and viruses; we “touch” them with our extended hybrid molecular tentacles to draw mental diagrams of our intimate enemies.

We seem devoid of molecular intuition associated with microorganisms. That does not mean we cannot nurture it through the ongoing elaborate interplay of concept and intuition, as many scientists and artists have been experimenting. The microbial consciousness manifested in every cell is supposedly intrinsic to our nonlinear evolution as complex organisms (Margulis 2001). In that case, molecular intuition should already be integral to the horizon of our primordial consciousness hidden in the deep ecology of our chimeric living system. Planetary life is an intricate web of innumerable infections and diffractive immunity patterns. The patternings of infection and immunity are political events of becoming molecular with the interface dynamics on every scale possible. 

The concept of cultural immunity is vital in our times, especially in the multiscale postcolonial situation. Culture is the life that traverses all kinds of boundaries and connects heterogeneous elements in a historically situated and specific way. Immunity is contingent, coevolutionary and nonlinear. Over the past decades, immunology has made an ecological turn, taking the extended network of symbiotic assemblages as the basic unit of analysis. Macroimmunology and ecoimmunology are working at a multiscale level (Forbes 2020). Immunological tolerance is at the center of today’s immunology (Pradeu 2019: 18). 

From a symbiological perspective of evolution, the human genome has encountered two distinct rounds of holobiontic union—the bacterial inheritance of mitochondria and human endogenous retroviruses (Ryan 2016: 11). Being symbiotic, holobiontic, and even symbiogenetic does not mean there are no power struggles. Life is never short of destruction and violation. Evolution, biological or cultural, as diffractive mattering full of differential entanglements, is about becoming with each other diffractively. When we function as a diffractive device for one another, it is an event of hospitality and interference.

We are starting to appreciate the diffractive creativity of biological, chemical, geological, and cultural elements engaging with one another in worlding the cosmos. How do we reconfigure the island country, considering its multiple colonial histories and the spiral temporalities inherent in its entangled immune system? How do we reconfigure Earth as our home planet, being responsible and accountable for the multispecies injustices it has endured? The only way to answer these questions is with our bodily practices as flesh and blood components of reconfiguring the island and the planet.

Hopefully, we will cultivate a planetary molecular sensibility that enables us to remember a thriving trans-species future for us more than humans. One day, if we are lucky, we can say to each other when we part ways: Remember the future for me, my dear friend. Until next time.

Chun-Mei Chuang, Soochow University, Taiwan


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