Some Notes on the Biology of the Shoggoths

When the Elder Things arrived on Earth during the Archean Eon, approximately 4.0 to 2.5 billion years ago, the only life on our planet was prokaryotic in nature. These relatively simple bacterial cells lacked organelles. However, the Elder Things used these bacteria cells as raw material for bioengineering. Specifically, this involved a process called endosymbiosis, where various bacterial cells were merged or fused together to make more complex cells called eukaryotes. Thus, many of the organelles in eukaryotic cells, such as flagella, mitochondria, and chloroplasts, were once bacterial cells. DNA and RNA comparisons between living bacteria and the residual genetic material found in these organelles within eukaryotic cells, provide strong evidence for this theory. Animals, plants, fungi and protists are all eukaryotic forms of life and were created by the Elder Things through endosymbiosis.

The Elder Things were building more complex, multi-cellular forms of life initially as a food source and later to serve as slave labor. Over millions of years the Elder Things created various forms of life and if they did not find them useful, they were either destroyed or discarded.  Once in the environment, the Elder Things had no interest in the discarded species. However, one thing the Elder Things did not anticipate was the development of sexual reproduction. Being primarily colonial and asexual in nature, the Elder Things did not think the development of sexual reproduction was important. However, the value of sex to a species is that, in conjunction with mutations, it provides a means of increasing and reshuffling genetic variability within a population. This increase in genetic variability allows individuals to respond to changes in the environment. Thus, a change in the environment may favor a sub-set of individuals within a population, allowing them to produce more offspring so those genes persist.  This is essentially how Darwinian natural selection operates.

While mutations and the reshuffling of genes through sexual fusion provided variability to species to survive changes in the environment, these developments meant nothing to the Elder Things as long as those species did not become an annoyance.  For example, since the ancestors of humans were not considered useful or a threat to the Elder Things, they were discarded, allowed to develop and evolve over millions of years on their own.  As Lovecraft noted, most life on Earth was considered a jest or mistake by the Elder Things, the superfluous by-products of experiments in bioengineering.

The Design and Construction of the Shoggoths

While the Elder Things were not concerned with the eukaryotic life they created, as well as their associated sexual reproduction and natural selection, they did note that such mechanisms make the control of these species difficult.  Thus, the Elder Things decided to make another form of life with two major modifications:

  1. A form of life that would be extremely flexible and can quickly adapt to changes in the environment on the level of the individual and not as a population through natural selection.
  2. A form of life that can not reproduce on its own. Thus, the numbers could be easily controlled.

In the minds of the Elder Things, they succeeded in achieving this goal – the creation of a form of life that had these two critical modifications built into their genetic make-up.  The result was the shoggoths. From an Elder Thing point of view the “pinnacle” of Terran evolution was the development of the shoggoth—an extremely adaptable, complex assemblage of prokaryotic and/or eukaryotic cells whose reproduction could be directly controlled by the Elder Things. The cellular make-up of the shoggoths would more likely be far more complex than those of eukaryotic cells since each cell has the ability to quickly reform into a specific type of specialized cell or collectively as differentiated tissue. Thus, while the eukaryotic cells are considered far more complex relative to prokaryotic cells, the shoggoth cells, here called super-eukaryotic, would be far more complex relative to eukaryotic cells. 

These super-eukaryotic cells would have the genotypes and, in turn, the phenotypes of a wide variety of life, which would include bacteria, plants, animals, fungi and protists.  This extremely large genetic database would give the shoggoths the ability to create specializes organelles, cells, tissues, and organs as quickly as we use our brain and nervous system to tell our legs to move. Thus, within moments a shoggoth can produce the chloroplasts of plants, the chitinous mandibles of insects, the mycelium of fungi or the muscle fiber tissue of vertebrates.  The super-eukaryotic cells of the shoggoth may have more elaborate and complex organelles, possibly called super-organelles, that allow for the quick creation and dissolution of organs and body parts.

What makes the super-eukaryotic cells particularly unique compared to eukaryotic cells is that they all function as “reversible stem cells.”  Stem cells are essentially eukaryotic cells that have the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body.  These are different from the rest of the cells in multicellular organisms in three ways.  First, they can divide and renew themselves over long periods of time.  Second, they are unspecialized, so they do not perform specific functions in the body. Third, they have the potential to become specialized cells, such as blood cells, skin cells or water-conducting cells found in plants.  In the case of multicellular life on Earth, once a stem cell, whether embryonic or adult, differentiates into a specialized cell, the process cannot be reserved.  This process of differentiation occurs at the cellular level and again is irreversible.

In contrast to differentiation is morphogenesis, which is the process that determines the shape of an organism.  Unlike differentiation which occurs at the cellular level and where cell movement does not have a critical role, morphogenesis occurs at the tissue, organ or whole organism level and cell movement does have a critical role.  For all eukaryotic life on Earth these processes are distinctly separate. In the case of the shoggoths, these processes are essentially the same and are reversible.  That is, the formation of specialized cells and the shape of the organism, from a cellular to the whole organism level, are both reversible and can occur at the same time.  This is what makes the shoggoth a truly unique organism.  It can at will create and reabsorb it organs and quickly modify its shape.

This fusion of differentiation and morphogenesis results in the shoggoths being described as “viscous masses” that were “capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs.” Shoggoth biomass has been described as protoplasmic and extremely pliable, with their natural state being a black sphere approximately fifteen feet in diameter; however, larger and smaller sub-species were also bioengineered by the Elder Things. In spite of this simple body plan, shoggoths can easily form or mold their tissue into more differentiated organs such as eyes, hands, tentacles and mouths. In addition, shoggoths are amphibious, easily living in both terrestrial and aquatic settings. Thus, while originally used as a source of food, shoggoths were later specifically designed to be “jack of all trade” beasts of burden with an extremely flexible phenotype.

Thus, the Elder Things were very successful at creating an organism that would be extremely flexible and can quickly adapt to changes in the environment at the level of an individual, not the population.  So, what about the second modification?  Creating a form of life that can not reproduce on its own?

Sexual reproduction is an effective means of increasing genetic variability; you are a genetic merging of your mother and father. In asexual organisms, the progeny are frequently the “clonal” offspring of the parent and thus genetically identical. This holds true for a variety of organisms including bacteria. Many aquatic plants and some animals such as bryozoans and corals grow and reproduce through fragmentation. However, such a mode of reproduction does not foster genetic variability, so an unfavorable turn in the local environmental conditions can have devastating impacts on the species. Sexual reproduction and its associated increase in genetic variability within a population can help to buffer against such changes in the environment by allowing a select sub-group of individuals to survive. Unfortunately, sexual reproduction does have a price.

While many clonal organisms can live indefinitely, assuming environmental conditions remain the same, death is a necessary outcome of sexual reproduction. First, the biological cost to an organism for sexual reproduction is considerably higher relative to the simple process of asexual reproduction. Second, death was an evolutionary means of ensuring that deleterious mutations do not become established and accumulate within the species. Thus, while sex is a very successful evolutionary strategy, with most Terran organisms practicing some sort of sexual reproduction, it did establish mortality for most life on Earth.

The extremely long-lived Elder Things reproduce primarily through asexual means. Indeed, for many of the extraterrestrial and extra-dimensional entities Lovecraft describes, asexual reproduction is their primary mode of reproduction. Many of these entities also tend to be extremely long-lived, such as the Elder Things, the Mi-Go and the Spawn of Cthulhu. As the Elder Things continued their bioengineering experiments on Earth, they also observed the natural development of the organisms they discarded. They observed these species grow and evolve over the centuries, witnessing the power of sexual reproduction and natural selection, and they wanted to make sure shoggoths never acquired these attributes. Thus, in addition to wanting a slave species that would have an extremely high degree of flexibility and adaptability, they wanted complete control over the reproduction of this organism.

Reproduction of Shoggoths

Very little is known about the reproduction of shoggoths. However, one thing is for certain: The Elder Things observed and documented the global power of sexual reproduction and its impact on the natural evolution of their discarded experiments. The Elder Things wanted to make sure that the shoggoths did not acquire the ability to reproduce on their own. Therefore, the shoggoths were genetically programed not to sexually reproduce. The exact genetic mechanism for accomplishing this is largely unknown. While there have been documented instances where unregulated binary fission has been conducted by a select number of shoggoths, a possible mutation, these individuals were quickly exterminated. Although the extent of the Elder Thing’s recorded history is very scant, there is no documentation of large-scale, uncontrolled reproduction of the shoggoths.

Since sexual reproduction is not known to occur in shoggoths and even asexual reproduction appears to be extremely rare, how does the shoggoth population remain stable?  First, as previously mentioned since their cells appear to be reversible stem cells, they are inherent long-lived.  Second, it is hypothesized that shoggoths are genetic programmed to be a certain size and do not increase or decrease in size.  Lovecraft was very explicit that in its nature spherical state, a shoggoth is 15 feet in diameter.  While there are other smaller, and possibly larger, sub-species of shoggoth, the individuals seem to be a very consistent size.  Similarly, the number of cells in a shoggoth may be a fixed number, similar to rotifers.

Rotifers are a group of small, aquatic invertebrates that are almost entirely exclusive to freshwater systems.  They are fairly unique in that they are composed of a fixed number of cells so when they increase in size it is not by the number of cells, it’s by an increase in cell size.  It is hypothesized that the shoggoth are similar to the rotifers in that they are composed of a fixed number of their super-eukaryotic cells.  Any attempt to wound or annihilate them results in some of the existing reversible stem cells differentiating into cells that can conduct binary fission and then reverting back to their fixed number of cells.  Another interesting biological property that rotifers and shoggoths share is that they both have the ability to go through antibiosis, which is a return to life from a state of suspended animation induced in an organism.  The return to life can be the result of warming a frozen organism or rehydrating a desiccated organism.  Finally, some rotifers are known to reproduce through an asexual means called parthenogenesis, which is females only produce daughters through unfertilized eggs.  Is it possible that shoggoths are all female and only reproduce through a form of parthenogenesis?

The actual reproduction of shoggoths appears to be largely a process that directly involved the Elder Things in some manner. Additionally, the creation or breeding of shoggoths appeared to be limited to specific areas or locations called “shoggoth pits.” The dependency on the Elder Things and limiting breeding to very specific locations, coupled with the genetic construction of the shoggoth to prevent the establishment of sexual reproduction were stop-gap measures designed to control the population of this species. However, as the archeological records reveal, the downfall of the Elder Things was not due to the uncontrolled reproduction of the shoggoths, but increased intelligence through a process not anticipated by the Elder Things.

Horizontal Gene Transfer

While sex in the conventional sense, that is male and female individuals producing gametes (sperm and eggs) that fuse to produce genetically shuffled offspring to increase variability, has not been recorded in shoggoths, an alternative form of sex does occur within the species. Specifically, this alternative form of sex involves the transfer of genes between individuals but does not result in the production of offspring. This process is typically called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). HGT can occur between a wide variety of organisms including viruses, eukaryotes and prokaryotes; however, it most frequently occurs among bacteria and viruses. In practical terms, HGT is an important process to understand since it frequently gives rise to increased resistance against antibiotics and synthetic pesticides. In fact, HGT is one of the primary reasons there is to this day a considerable amount of controversy in applying the traditional concept of “species” to bacteria.

In the case of shoggoths HGT may have served as a means for individuals to share favorable mutations, which over the millennia could have resulted in increased intelligence. Such sharing of favorable genes among the global shoggoth population as a kind of biological world wide web could have gone largely undetected by the Elder Things. Mutations that favored increased intelligence within the somatic cells of a shoggoth could have easily been passed to another individual by the briefest of physical contact, which in turn could be passed to others.

Additionally, mutations in the shoggoth genome may not be the only source of such acquired intelligence. Indeed, the shoggoths may have been genetically bioengineered in such a manner that mutations may not have been possible, or at least minimal. If this is the case then the shoggoths may have been tapping into the genetic resources of other Terran organisms, primarily bacteria and viruses. In this alternative hypothesis the shoggoths selected favorable genes from the Earth’s global prokaryotic gene pool, picking and choosing those genes with traits they found favorable. Once a favorable gene was selected and obtained, it could easily be disseminated through the global shoggoth community. This global scale of HGT would only accelerate over time with increased intelligence. Such HGT-based evolution would at least partially explain the periodic rebellions of the shoggoths that have occurred through the centuries.

Quorum Sensing

In addition to the HGT, another development in shoggoths that the Elder Things may not have anticipated was quorum sensing, which describes a chemical process used by bacteria in a colony to communicate with one another.  Certain bacteria will release signaling molecules to communicate.  For example, Gram-negative bacteria will release N-acyl homoserine lactones, while Gram-positive bacteria tend to release oligopeptides.  When released, other bacteria will detect these molecules with receptors. Typically, such chemical communication is used to signal the activation of certain genes.  For example, quorum sensing can signal other bacteria to increase the rate of cellular division or the manufacturing of compounds to combat antibiotics in the environment.  However, for quorum sensing to be successful the density of bacteria needs to be high enough for the signaling molecules to reach a specific threshold.  Essentially, the more bacteria, the greater the chance of success that the bacterial colony will receive the message and initiate the necessary genes.  Shoggoths may community the same way.

While it is well documented that shoggoths can mimic the language of their creators, using a chemical language based on a Terran, prokaryotic form of communication, is a means of sharing information and conveying messages without the Elder Things knowing about it.  Both HGT and quorum sensing may have been biological mechanisms used by the shoggoths on acquiring intelligence through the accumulation of genes produced by other Terran life and sharing it with other shoggoths.  If this is the case, then the supreme irony would be it was a large “mistake” that the Elder Ones did not destroy the Terran life forms they thought too insignificant, resulting in the “joke” being on them.

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  1. Pingback: Biology of the Shoggoths | TENTACLII : H.P. Lovecraft blog

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