Top story and most flawed hype of 2010

Reconstruction of Neandertaler at Neanderthal ...

Reconstruction of a middle-aged Neanderthal man. Image via Wikipedia

EPN might seem to include a disproportionate number of items on hominin evolution, including several on genetic evidence. An outcome of the Earth System’s 4.5 billion-year evolution increasingly depending on physical resources, we lie at the focus of our own curiosity studying the past primarily for ourselves. That is why the discovery from the partial genome of Neanderthal remains that all humans outside those who live in Africa carry in our DNA the ‘fruits’ of intimate relations with Neanderthals is surely the most explosive development of the 21st century so far (see Yes, it seems that they did…in May 2010 issue of EPN). It is deepened by the publication in late 2010 (Reich, D and 27 others 2010. Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, v. 468, p. 1053-1060) of genetic findings from remains of a third distinct hominin group that inhabited central Siberia 30 to 50 ka ago (see Other rich hominin pickings in the May 2010 issue of EPN). [Thanks go to Dr Bill Deller, legal historian, for alerting me to this.] The DNA from a tooth and a finger bone show that the individual female was genetically neither a fully modern human nor a Neanderthal in a statistical sense, but parts of the sequence, as with the Neanderthal genome, pop up in the genomes of living people. The ‘Denisovan’ signature – the authors do not assign the female to a new species – contributes 4 to 6 % of the genomes of present-day inhabitants of Papua-New Guinea and other Melanesian people of the Pacific north of Australia, but appears in no others. Since Melanesians carry some Neanderthal genetic material the new finding can be interpreted as the result of similar interfertile mating between the ‘Denisovans’ and a limited group of early fully human travellers who crossed central Asia and eventually moved through Indonesia to cross the West Pacific to Papua-New Guinea and Melanesia about 45 ka ago. For up to a twentieth of the genetic outcome of such liaisons to survive to the present suggests no idle dalliance, but proportionately common relationships.

Solo tiene 400.000 años. Un chaval, vamos.

Reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis, perhaps similar to a Denisovan. Image via Wikipedia

Denisovans shared a common ancestor with Neanderthals and ourselves, but seem to have followed a separate evolutionary path. Analysis of their DNA suggests that they diverged from Neanderthals around 640 ka  and from modern Africans around 800 ka. Although these ‘molecular clock’ dates show considerable uncertainty, they extend back to a period when fossil evidence suggests the presence in Europe and Africa of Homo heidelbergensis and H. erectus respectively. The molar tooth has a morphology similar to African H. erectus and to even earlier hominins, but distinct from the teeth of Neanderthals and fully modern humans. Could the ‘Denisovans’ represent a distinct wave of emigrants from Africa? Some hominin fossils from China are dissimilar to Neanderthals and Asian H. erectus and efforts will certainly be made to establish their genetic make-up. For the moment, these findings deny any simple linear explanation for the ‘Out-of-Africa’ movement of people. Equally important, and the reason why the researchers refuse to assign the ‘Denisovans’ to a new species, is that interfertility is generally accepted as the sign of mating between members of the same species. To some extent this harks back to the ideas of the ecologist Jonathan Kingdon (Kingdon, J. 1993, Self-made Man and His Undoing. Simon & Schuster: London) that humans are a line that did not speciate over the last couple of million years, but show morphological differences that arose within the growing protection from selection pressures conferred by the use and development of tools. Kingdon’s parsimonious approach to human evolution found little favour with palaeoanthropologists, perhaps because of the kudos associated with finding and naming new species.

See also: Callaway, E. 2010. Fossil genome reveals ancestral link. Nature, v. 468, p. 1012; Bustamante, C.D. & Henn, B.M. 2010. Shadows of early migrations. Nature, v. 468, p. 1044-1045.

Perhaps it is a generational thing, stemming from popular science fiction and scientists’ speculation in the 1970s and 80s, that has encouraged the growth of exo-, xeno- and astrobiology as subdisciplines. There is a certain sadness in that all practitioners can do at present is examine the organic diversity offered by our home world and speculate about alien life forms based on that terrestrial evidence. The Earth offers plenty of scope for studying the biologically odd and awesome, especially among prokaryotes, as there are extremophiles of all kinds: the hot, the cold and the deep biospheres. But all are based on the nucleic acids shared by all life on Earth; traces of familiar amino acids occur far and wide in the cosmos, but none whatsoever of anything more complicated that could source self-replication and evolution. So it was in a mood of solemn gaiety that EPN greeted the hint of truly alien life forms among us by NASA press officers in November. It turned out to presage a paper concerning bacteria peculiar to Mono Lake in California (Wolfe-Simon, F. And 11 others 2010. A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Science Express, DOI:10.1126/science.1197258). The paper hinted at arsenic being used to substitute for phosphorus in the structure of nucleic acids in the bacterium when it lived in low-phosphate environments. The paper’s substance was culturing the bacterium in vitro in increasingly P-deficient water that also contained arsenic. If replicable the notion of arsenic-DNA would seem to be pretty startling, but the paper faced a storm of adverse comment.

Mono Lake Tufa

Biomineralised columns at Mono Lake, California. Image via Wikipedia

A crucial feature of the DNA molecule is the bond between the sugar of one nucleotide and the phosphate group of another. As any geochemist knows, it is possible for elements to substitute for one another if they have similar atomic properties. Arsenic, being adjacent to phosphorus in the same group of the periodic table, is a potential substitute –  arsenate for phosphate, although the former is far less stable than phosphate. Wolfe-Simon’s team is not claiming the peculiar bacterium as a candidate for alien life forms, but that is the spin widely being put on their work. All they suggest is that some bacteria can survive high-As low-P conditions and may be found in chemically highly toxic environments elsewhere. Since the cosmic abundance of arsenic is about three orders of magnitude less than that of phosphorus it is unlikely that alien genetic material somehow uses arsenic in its architecture. Besides, why should DNA be the sole basis for self-replication, the essence of truly living beings?

Added 14 January 2011: Science gave Felisa Wolfe-Simon the opportunity to reply to critics (Pennisi, E. 2010. Discoverer asks for time, patience over arsenic bacteria controversy. Science, v. 330, p. 1734-1735). Personally, I sympathise with the beleaguered team: on the launch of Stepping Stones in 1999 I was pestered continuously by journalists from both low- and highbrow newspapers. In that case I had made a joke that perhaps the human coughing reflex had stemmed from ancestral reptiles that survived the Permian-Triassic mass extinction and the emissions of the Siberian Traps: the journalists actually believed it

See also: Pennisi, E. 2010. What Poison? Bacterium uses arsenic to build DNA and other molecules. Science, v. 330, p. 1302.

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