Tag Archives: Evolution

‘Did Mars Once Hold Life?’ Discovery Of Organic Molecules May Hold Vital Clues.

An exciting discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover has strengthened the idea that Mars may have once been suitable for life. The chance finding of organic material in an ancient lake bed suggests Mars once held the foodstuffs necessary for life.

Although not conclusive, these findings add to the growing evidence for previous life on Mars, with seasonal methane and liquid water providing cause for excitement.  Mars is inhospitable for now, but may not have always been.

And with that, the tantalising hope that life may exist beyond earth.

mars life organic rover

Mars is considered a cold, dead world. But did life once flourish? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Curiosity’s Discovery Of Organic Molecules

The discovery of these ‘organic molecules’ asks many questions. We cannot tell exactly where they came from, perhaps remnants of long dead organisms, something crash landed from space or indeed simply ancient foodstuffs.

But what we can say is that these molecules, formed of carbon, oxygen and other elements fundamental to life as we know it, could very much  suggest something significant.  Whilst it is important to note that these structures can be created without life, life can’t exist without them.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. ” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate.

life organic simple mars

Life is a complex array of molecules and processes. But at its core, the foundational elements may coalesce with relative ease. Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

Food For Thought

Although direct evidence of life on Mar’s is yet to be discovered, if at all, these new findings tell us that the environment may have supported it. Biological creatures like we subsist  on organic compounds for energy, and this is consistent down the food chain.

There is little reason to thing extra-terrestrial life would be that different. In fact, many believe that the ingredients for simple life are abundant enough that finding alien organisms is almost a certainty. And the chances are that, on a fundamental level at least, we will all be built of the same stuff.

And with that, makes a strong case for a similar ecological energy source. Jennifer Eigenbrode, NASA biogeochemist says of the finding;

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

earth life mars organic

All life as we know it evolved from the same ingredients. And these ingredients grow universally. Image courtesy of Flickr.

A New Direction In Ancient Footsteps

Although direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life eludes us, the chances are good. Although the paucity of interstellar craft and signals presents some concerning questions, it may be that life is abundant between the stars.

And you have  to look no further than your own back yard to find out why. It is likely made of common stuff.

Whilst we imagine aliens as, well, very alien, very basic life may be a natural inevitability. Current theories of the origins of life on earth centre around the unconscious replication of favourable molecules, building more complex structures over time.

Eventually, these would become us and everything else that breathes, grows and dies. And the more we learn, the more beautiful and interconnected it all becomes.

life organic mars

The size of our universe is beyond comprehension. But can we really say that it is ours? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given the vast numbers at hand, i.e trillions of stars, innumerable planets and billions of years, chances are that Curiosity’s discovery may be just the first of a truly cosmic collection.

So what do you think, is there life out there? What does it mean for us? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

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Ever Wonder Why Humans Are So Clever? Scientists Hone In On Special Genes

brain clever gene

There is no doubt that humans are the smartest creatures on the planet. But for the longest time it has been unclear just how exactly we made the jump from simple creatures to ones capable of mathematics, ethical debate and invention.

But now scientists may have begun to unravel the mystery, discovering that three similar genes may be behind the boost.

Coding for the expansion of our brains by increasing the potential for creating neuronal cells, it may be that these three genes hold the key to human intelligence.

clever gene evolution notch2

Monkeys are intelligent creatures, and share most of our genetic material. So what makes us different? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Genes For ‘Clever’ Are A Mistake.

Publishing in CellPierre Vanderhaeghen and his team investigated the role of the NOTCH2NL gene.  This is just one of a family of genes responsible for modulating the development of organisms, but has appeared in four similar forms in humans.

By reconstructing the story of the gene over time, the team noticed something interesting.

Around 14 million years ago a part of the gene was copied by mistake, and remained silent for millions of years. Later another mutation and insertion rendered it functional, eventually leading to a total of four versions. Three work, and the last remains quiet within our DNA.

clever dna gene brain intelligence

Our DNA defines what and who we are, and by studying it we can learn more about what it is to be human. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So what does the gene do? Aside from promote brain cell maintenance, it seems the trio also increase the potential for new brain cells to be created. When Vanderhaeghen inserted the genes into a growth culture including human brain cells, they created new stem cells.

These stem cells can differentiate (change) into new brain cells.

Furthermore, a certain protein expressed by the gene stops further change, meaning that new neuronal cells can replicate over and over.

Basically, the duplication of the gene seems to lead to a greater number of brain cells, and with that, intelligence.

Neuronal Cells, Evolution and Cleverness

When studying ‘intelligence’ humans have made a lot of mistakes. First we considered a ‘larger’ brain likely ‘more intelligent’, but when you consider an elephant you can see this doesn’t quite work.

It seems that the two best predictors of intelligence are ‘surface area’ of the brain and ‘number of connections’ between the cells.

Basically, by increasing the surface area of the brain there is more room for brain cells, and by forming efficient and numerous connections between them these cells can work more effectively.

This is the case in the human brain, which due to its many rolls and crevices boasts a relatively huge surface area.

This new data sheds some light on why our brains may have developed this way, with the NOTCH2NL genes fundamental in both producing surplus neutrons and modulating their abilities.

But the odd thing is that this kind of  ‘mistake’ is fundamental to evolution.

gene clever brain

Every species on earth evolves, and millions of years of mutation and selection has created the wealth of diversity we see today. Image courtesy of Flickr.

When a species reproduces it passes its genes, the coding material for the production of the species, down the line. Although the mechanisms for replication of the molecule are pretty good, mistakes are made. These are called  ‘mutations‘.

Most are harmless, and have no clear effect on the new organism. But sometimes they confer some benefit, increasing the organisms, and thus  the species’, chance of reproducing again.

Explained in the context of evolution, these mutations  are defined as ‘individual variation‘, and this is one of the central tenets of evolutionary theory. In the case of the  NOTCH2NL gene, it seems the mutation means greater intelligence.

More research is needed to explain intelligence fully, but it seems we have caught a lucky break.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

Ever Wondered Who You Are? Stop Waiting And Find Out.

You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?

Genesis

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)

Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.

From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)

Molecules And Man

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist

Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)

Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.

‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)

But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.

Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:

  1. Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
  2. If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)

TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.

Something Special (?)

Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.

So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable.  But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.

Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to  15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.

We seem to be alone.

But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)

Who Are You?

For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.

You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.

And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.

What’s Next?

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  • Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan

Sources

The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.

 

 

 

Why Does The Colour Red Mean The End Of The World? How One Colour Gave Life, And How It Spells Our End.

Consider your heart. It is built of a specialised network of muscle, nerves, blood vessels and sensors. And from some moment early in the womb, it will beat roughly every second of every day until you die. And during that time, you will fall in love, make friends,  be unbelievably happy, deeply sad,  and  sometimes (this ones up to you,) full of wonder.

And one wonderful thing, one thing that makes your heart beat a little faster, is the colour red. But why do we love red? How has it helped us survive? And why is it the key to our future?

What Is Red?

Red, at is most fundamental level, is a collection of light wavelengths between 622-780 nanometres (that’s 622-780 billions of a metre.) Our brain sees this as ‘Red.’ Philosophers debate over whether ‘my red’ is the same as ‘your red’, perhaps your ‘green’ looks like my ‘red’. Who knows? But aside from those with colour blindness, or ‘Achromotopsia’ (seeing only in black, white and grey,) we can all see that an apple is ‘red’.

And this is vitally important. And like many things in nature, it is no accident. And according to some evolutionary theories, its all about the relationship between our ancient ancestors and fruit.

Foragers And Flags

‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ Theodosius Dobzhansky, Biologist.

Think back along the earth’s evolutionary tree. Its actually quite difficult. It isn’t very linear, and as you rush by its millions of splitting branches you will see all forms of odd creatures. But  most  of these creatures have a few similar traits. They need to eat for energy, to mate for reproduction, to spot and combat (or run from,) danger, and to find a home in which to pass their lives.

We don’t have to go back too far, just around 50 million years, to see our ape ancestors. Territorial tree foragers, they subsisted mainly on fruit. And their eyes were well adapted for spotting it, and certain familiar colours stood out. Spotting ‘ripe’ red* colour helped them survive, and with each subsequent generation those with better vision passed on the genes to better spot food.

And for the plants, it meant those with the most easily spotted food were eaten, digested, and their seeds spread. Together the plants and apes grew  reciprocal evolutionary path, and over time this was reinforced. Today we still see red things as ripe, attractive and life sustaining.

No wonder we like the colour red, it kept us alive. But has it served its purpose, or has ‘red’ got more in store for us?

 

Red Runs Away

“The greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.’ – Robinson Jeffers

As fascinating as our history with the colour red is, the familiar wavelength is also the key to one of the most fascinating discoveries of recent times. During the 1500’s Nicolaus Copernicus suggest the ‘Heliocentric Theory‘ of the Universe. That the solar system was centred (centric,) around a star (Helios.) Not long after, astronomers used telescopes to examine distant stars. We suddenly got our first glimpse of how small we really are.

But it wasn’t until 1929 that Astronomer Edwin Hubble made a startling discovery. When looking at distant galaxies, he found that all of the light coming from them was ‘red shifted’. This meant the wavelength of the light was stretched, as if the galaxy was moving away. He also found that those galaxies the furthest away were ‘redshifted’ further, as if they were moving faster.

Edwin Hubble, thanks to the colour red and some mathematics, had discovered that the Universe was expanding, and speeding up as it went. And from that, how it began, and how it is likely to end (a big crunch, rip or freeze.)

So consider again your heart, the little red thing that keeps you alive. Isn’t it just incredible that its very colour has told us so much?

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.  Image courtesy of John Voo.

*Note. Red is not the only colour that is important to us. Think of bees, wasps, snakes, crossing signs, cheetahs, leopards…