A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Working together may be in our genes - literally

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 21, 22 or 23

Maybe there’s a biological imperative to a philosophical ideal – and one mutation may confirm the human impulse to cooperate.

Mutations are evolutionary hiccups that happen all the time (apart from pop culture’s mutant X-Men), it’s been known for awhile. Now, however, new research not only shows a biological aberration 600 million years ago essentially opened up Earth to life beyond single-celled organisms, but it indirectly points to a direction for civilization (which we occasionally ignore).

In a paper published last week in the online journal eLife [], scientists say they found what seems to be an evolutionary glitch that let ancient protozoa gradually change into multi-cellular organisms of complexity – and familiarity, form and function. Largely because of this mutation, cells became able to communicate and collaborate.

“This mutation is one small change that dramatically altered the protein’s function, allowing it to perform a completely different task,” said lead researcher Ken Prehoda of the University of Oregon’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “You could say that animals really like these proteins. There are now over 70 of them inside of us.

“Proteins are the workhorses of our cells, performing a wide variety of tasks such as metabolism,” he continued. “But how does a protein that performs one task evolve to perform another? And how do complex systems like those that allow cells to work together in an organized way, evolve the many different proteins they require? Our work suggests that new protein functions can evolve with a very small number of mutations. In this case, only one was required.”

The discovery was made thanks to choanoflagellates — tiny balloon-shaped organisms that are humans’ closest one-cell relatives that remain around — and a scheme called “ancestral protein reconstruction,” which let researchers from Oregon and the University of California- Berkeley uncover genomes of long-dead creatures based on the DNA of their contemporary descendants.

Choanoflagellates were appropriate for Prehoda’s study because the organisms are single-celled but sometimes cooperate by swimming as a group, helping themselves to “hunt” and eat. In such action, the group behaves as one multi-cellular organism.

Prehoda and colleagues discovered that, millennia ago, one mutation changed a protein to interact rather than act independently and individually, like enzymes. With the mutation, the protein became an “interaction domain” able to “communicate” and join together to organize for a common purpose. Hundreds of millions of years later, the protein domain is in all animal genomes.

Maybe our species – once we became self-aware – began to instinctively sense that connection, communication and collaboration work.

Culturally, there are all kinds of references to the concept.

In First Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, “The body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”

Some 1,800 years later, Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but all together we make a mighty fist.”

Somewhere in their heart of hearts, perhaps Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan – much less Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, or the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and Redbirds manager Michael Matheny, etc. – feel that common ground exists, that sociopolitical or cultural collaboration is the way to go.

Humans may not need to evolve.

Maybe we just need to heed our own intuition.

[PICTURED: Illustration from]

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