How the Western diet has derailed our evolution

Moises Velesquez-Manoff writes: For the microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg, that career-defining moment — the discovery that changed the trajectory of his research, inspiring him to study how diet and native microbes shape our risk for disease — came from a village in the African hinterlands.

A group of Italian microbiologists had compared the intestinal microbes of young villagers in Burkina Faso with those of children in Florence, Italy. The villagers, who subsisted on a diet of mostly millet and sorghum, harbored far more microbial diversity than the Florentines, who ate a variant of the refined, Western diet. Where the Florentine microbial community was adapted to protein, fats, and simple sugars, the Burkina Faso microbiome was oriented toward degrading the complex plant carbohydrates we call fiber.

Scientists suspect our intestinal community of microbes, the human microbiota, calibrates our immune and metabolic function, and that its corruption or depletion can increase the risk of chronic diseases, ranging from asthma to obesity. One might think that if we coevolved with our microbes, they’d be more or less the same in healthy humans everywhere. But that’s not what the scientists observed. [Continue reading…]


Why we think the very first farmers were small groups with property rights

By Elizabeth Gallagher, UCL

For 95% of the history of modern humans we were exclusively hunter gatherers. Then suddenly about 12,000 years ago, something happened that revolutionised the way humans lived and enabled the complex societies we have today: farming.

But what triggered this revolution? Understanding this is incredibly challenging – because this occurred so far in the past, there are many factors to consider. However, by simulating the past using a complex computational model, we found that the switch from foraging to farming most likely began with very small groups of people that were using the concept of property rights.

Farming: an unlikely choice

It may seem obvious why we switched from foraging to farming: it made it possible to stay in one place, feed larger populations, have greater food security and build increasingly complex societies, political structures, economies and technologies. However, these advantages took time to develop and our early farmer ancestors would not have seen these coming.

Indeed, archaeological research suggests that when farming began it was not a particularly attractive lifestyle. It involved more work, a decrease in the quality of nutrition and health, an increase in disease and infection, and greater challenges in defending resources. For a hunter-gatherer at the cusp of the “agricultural revolution”, a switch to farming wasn’t the obvious choice.

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In a society where everyone is ready to defend the common good, corruption doesn’t pay

Suzanne Sadedin writes: By making a few alterations to the composition of the justice system, corrupt societies could be made to transition to a state called ‘righteousness’. In righteous societies, police were not a separate, elite order. They were everybody. When virtually all of society stood ready to defend the common good, corruption didn’t pay.

Among honeybees and several ant species, this seems to be the status quo: all the workers police one another, making corruption an unappealing choice. In fact, the study showed that even if power inequalities later re-appeared, corruption would not return. The righteous community was extraordinarily stable.

Not all societies could make the transition. But those that did would reap the benefits of true, lasting harmony. An early tribe that made the transition to righteousness might out-compete more corrupt rivals, allowing righteousness to spread throughout the species. Such tribal selection is uncommon among animals other than eusocial insects, but many researchers think it could have played a role in human evolution. Hunter-gatherer societies commonly tend toward egalitarianism, with social norms enforced by the whole group rather than any specially empowered individuals. [Continue reading…]


How did complex creatures evolve from simple single-celled organisms?

Emily Singer writes: In September 2014, Christa Schleper embarked on an unusual hunting expedition in Slovenia. Instead of seeking the standard quarry of deer or wild boar, Schleper was in search of Lokiarchaeota, or Loki, a newly discovered group of organisms first identified near deep-sea vents off the coast of Norway. The simple, single-celled creatures have captured scientists’ interest because they are unlike any other organism known to science. They belong to an ancient group of creatures known as archaea, but they seem to share some features with more complex life-forms, including us.

Though little is known about Loki, scientists hope that it will help to resolve one of biology’s biggest mysteries: how life transformed from simple single-celled organisms to the menagerie of complex life known as eukaryotes — a category that includes everything from yeast to azaleas to elephants. “Next to the origins of life, there’s probably no bigger mystery in the history of life,” said John Archibald, an evolutionary biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

The jump from single cells to complex creatures is so puzzling because it represents an enormous evolutionary gulf. “How do you make a eukaryote, that’s a big question,” said Schleper, a microbiologist at the University of Vienna in Austria. “It’s a huge transition.”

Though single-celled organisms blanket the Earth and are capable of impressive biochemistry — some can eat nuclear waste, for example — their structure and shape remain simple. Cells from animals, plants and fungi, which make up the eukaryotes, are much more sophisticated. They possess a suite of features lacking in their simpler brethren: a nucleus that houses DNA; an energy-producing device known as the mitochondrion; and molecular architecture, known as the cytoskeleton, that controls cell shape and movement.

Most biologists agree that at some point around two billion years ago, one featureless cell swallowed another, and the two began to work together as one. But the details of this process — whether this symbiosis jump-started an evolutionary process, or whether it happened midway along the path to eukaryotes — continue to drive huge disputes in the field. [Continue reading…]


Competition in Cambrian seas 542 million years ago helped cause an explosion in animal diversity

Brooke Borel writes: Battles fought 542 million years before today helped fuel a blast that brought humans and most animals into existence. The great Cambrian Explosion was a period of unprecedented one-upmanship. Beastly claws crushed through thin skin, and soft-bodied creatures evolved shells shaped like scythes, sickles, and shields.

For about a billion years prior, the cells and genes that would later create animals were evolving in microscopic organisms who inhabited the oceans of Earth. These essential molecular changes may only be inferred today because they’re not preserved in fossils. The earliest traces of animals, about 580 million years old, appear soft, with no sign of claws, teeth, limbs, or brains. Then, within 54 million years (a relative blink but still, 270 times the duration of humans’ existence thus far), most of the main animal groups around today originated. This rapid rate of increase in animal architectures has never since been repeated.

A simple species count does not do justice to the power of the Cambrian Explosion. Species have continuously formed over time. A new type of moth may have antennae that are furrier than its sisters; a new species of dinosaur may be distinguished by clawed wings and vicious front fangs. But a new phylum — a major branch on the tree of life, the upper-level ranking that separates an insect from a pterodactyl — is rarely born.

Most of today’s 30 to 40 animal phyla originated in the Cambrian, and have persisted through time with hundreds of variations on a theme. [Continue reading…]


Long before going to Europe, humans ventured east to Asia

LiveScience reports: Teeth from a cave in China suggest that modern humans lived in Asia much earlier than previously thought, and tens of thousands of years before they reached Europe, researchers say.

This discovery yields new information about the dispersal of modern humans from Africa to the rest of the world, and could shed light on how modern humans and Neanderthals interacted, the scientists added.

Modern humans first originated about 200,000 years ago in Africa. When and how the modern human lineage dispersed from Africa has long been controversial.

Previous research suggested the exodus from Africa began between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago. However, recent research hinted that modern humans might have begun their march across the globe as early as 130,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]


Video: The hidden life of the cell


Human Genome Project: Twenty-five years of big biology

Eric D. Green, James D. Watson& Francis S. Collins write: Twenty-five years ago, the newly created US National Center for Human Genome Research (now the National Human Genome Research Institute; NHGRI), which the three of us have each directed, joined forces with US and international partners to launch the Human Genome Project (HGP). What happened next represents one of the most historically significant scientific endeavours: a 13-year quest to sequence all three billion base pairs of the human genome.

Even just a few years ago, discussions surrounding the HGP focused mainly on what insights the project had brought or would bring to our understanding of human disease. Only now is it clear that, as well as dramatically accelerating biomedical research, the HGP initiated a new way of doing science.

As biology’s first large-scale project, the HGP paved the way for numerous consortium-based research ventures. The NHGRI alone has been involved in launching more than 25 such projects since 2000. These have presented new challenges to biomedical research — demanding, for instance, that diverse groups from different countries and disciplines come together to share and analyse vast data sets. [Continue reading…]

The Independent reports: The most comprehensive study of the human genome has discovered that a sizeable minority of people are walking around with some of their genes missing without any apparent ill-effects, scientists have found.

A project to sequence and analyse the entire genetic code of more than 2,500 people drawn from 26 different ethnic populations from around the world has revealed that some genes do not seem to be as essential for health and life as previously believed.

The finding is just one to have emerged from the 1,000 Genomes Project set up in 2008 to study the genetic variation in at least this number of people in order to understand the variety of DNA types within the human population, the researchers said. [Continue reading…]


Imagining strange new lifeforms could help us discover our own origins

By Michael Page, University of Huddersfield

From the earliest of times, philosophers and scientists have tried to understand the relationship between animate and inanimate matter. But the origin of life remains one of the major scientific riddles to be solved.

The building blocks of life as we know it essentially consist of four groups of chemicals: proteins, nucleic acids, lipids (fats) and carbohydrates. There was much excitement about the possibility of finding amino acids (the ingredients for proteins) on comets or distant planets because some scientists believe that life on Earth, or at least its building blocks, may have originally come from outer space and been deposited by meteorites.

But there are now extensive examples of how natural processes on Earth can convert simple molecules into these building blocks. Scientists have demonstrated in the lab how to make amino acids, simple sugars, lipids and even nucleotides – the basic units of DNA – from very simple chemicals, under conditions that could have existed on early earth. What still eludes them is the point in the process when a chemical stew becomes an organism. How did the first lifeforms become alive?

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Which species will survive the Earth’s sixth mass extinction?

By Matthew Wills, University of Bath

Scientists recently suggested that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction has begun. As terrifying as that sounds, surely humans are too smart and too important to get wiped out? Palaeontologists have long tried to shed light on this question by looking for general rules that might predict the survival of a species.

While this is not exactly a straightforward exercise, research so far indicates that the odds are not in our favour.

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In defence of bats: Beautifully designed mammals that should be left in peace

By Daniel Horton, University of Surrey

As a wildlife veterinarian, I often get asked about bats. I like bats, and I am always eager to talk about how interesting they are. Unfortunately the question is often not about biology but instead “what should I do about the ones in my roof?”.

With some unique talents and remarkable sex lives, bats are actually one of the most interesting, diverse and misunderstood groups of animals. Contrary to popular belief, they are beautiful creatures. Not necessarily in the cuddly, human-like sense – although some fruit bats with doey brown eyes and button noses could be considered so – but they are beautifully designed.

This couldn’t be illustrated better than by the discovery of the oldest known complete bat fossil, more than 53 million-years-old yet with a similar wing design to those flying around today. To put it in perspective, 50m years ago our ancestors were still swinging from the trees and would certainly not be recognised as human. But even then bats already had the combination of thin, long forearms and fingers covered by an extremely thin, strong membrane, which allowed them to master the art of powered, agile flight.

A flying fox shows off its 50 million-year-old wing design.
Duncan PJ, CC BY-SA

Soon afterwards, fossils record another game-changing adaptation in the evolution of most bats, and that is the ability to accurately locate prey using sound (what we call echolocation). These two adaptations early in their history gave bats an evolutionary edge compared to some other mammals, and allowed them to diversify into almost all habitats, on every continent except Antarctica.

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Mysterious new genes may arise from ‘junk’ DNA

Emily Singer writes: Genes, like people, have families — lineages that stretch back through time, all the way to a founding member. That ancestor multiplied and spread, morphing a bit with each new iteration.

For most of the last 40 years, scientists thought that this was the primary way new genes were born — they simply arose from copies of existing genes. The old version went on doing its job, and the new copy became free to evolve novel functions.

Certain genes, however, seem to defy that origin story. They have no known relatives, and they bear no resemblance to any other gene. They’re the molecular equivalent of a mysterious beast discovered in the depths of a remote rainforest, a biological enigma seemingly unrelated to anything else on earth.

The mystery of where these orphan genes came from has puzzled scientists for decades. But in the past few years, a once-heretical explanation has quickly gained momentum — that many of these orphans arose out of so-called junk DNA, or non-coding DNA, the mysterious stretches of DNA between genes. “Genetic function somehow springs into existence,” said David Begun, a biologist at the University of California, Davis. [Continue reading…]


The difference between Americans who do or don’t believe in evolution

Dan Kahan writes: It’s well established that there is no meaningful correlation between what a person says he or she “believes” about evolution and having the rudimentary understanding of natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance necessary to pass a high school biology exam (Bishop & Anderson 1990; Shtulman 2006).

There is a correlation between “belief” in evolution and possession of the kinds of substantive knowledge and reasoning skills essential to science comprehension generally.

But what the correlation is depends on religiosity: a relatively nonreligious person is more likely to say he or she “believes in” evolution, but a relatively religious person less likely to do so, as their science comprehension capacity goes up (Kahan 2015).

That’s what “belief in” evolution of the sort measured in a survey item signifies: who one is, not what one knows.

Americans don’t disagree about evolution because they have different understandings of or commitments to science. They disagree because they subscribe to competing cultural worldviews that invest positions on evolution with identity-expressive significance. [Continue reading…]


Everything we thought we knew about the genome is turning out to be wrong

Claire Ainsworth writes: Ask me what a genome is, and I, like many science writers, might mutter about it being the genetic blueprint of a living creature. But then I’ll confess that “blueprint” is a lousy metaphor since it implies that the genome is two-dimensional, prescriptive and unresponsive.

Now two new books about the genome show the limitation of that metaphor for something so intricate, complex, multilayered and dynamic. Both underscore the risks of taking metaphors too literally, not just in undermining popular understanding of science, but also in trammelling scientific enquiry. They are for anyone interested in how new discoveries and controversies will transform our understanding of biology and of ourselves.

John Parrington is an associate professor in molecular and cellular pharmacology at the University of Oxford. In The Deeper Genome, he provides an elegant, accessible account of the profound and unexpected complexities of the human genome, and shows how many ideas developed in the 20th century are being overturned.

Take DNA. It’s no simple linear code, but an intricately wound, 3D structure that coils and uncoils as its genes are read and spliced in myriad ways. Forget genes as discrete, protein-coding “beads on a string”: only a tiny fraction of the genome codes for proteins, and anyway, no one knows exactly what a gene is any more.[Continue reading…]


The dysevolution of humanity

Jeff Wheelwright writes: I sat in my padded desk chair, hunched over, alternately entering notes on my computer and reading a book called The Story of the Human Body. It was the sort of book guaranteed to make me increasingly, uncomfortably aware of my own body. I squirmed to relieve an ache in my lower back. When I glanced out the window, the garden looked fuzzy. Where were my glasses? My toes felt hot and itchy: My athlete’s foot was flaring up again.

I returned to the book. “This chapter focuses on just three behaviors … that you are probably doing right now: wearing shoes, reading, and sitting.” OK, I was. What could be more normal?

According to the author, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard named Daniel Lieberman, shoes, books and padded chairs are not normal at all. My body had good reason to complain because it wasn’t designed for these accessories. Too much sitting caused back pain. Too much focusing on books and computer screens at a young age fostered myopia. Enclosed, cushioned shoes could lead to foot problems, including bunions, fungus between the toes and plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue below weakened arches.

Those are small potatoes compared with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and many cancers also on the rise in the developed and developing parts of the world. These serious disorders share several characteristics: They’re chronic, noninfectious, aggravated by aging and strongly influenced by affluence and culture. Modern medicine has come up with treatments for them, but not solutions; the deaths and disabilities continue to climb.

An evolutionary perspective is critical to understanding the body’s pitfalls in a time of plenty, Lieberman suggests. [Continue reading…]