Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

When Collectivism and Dumb Luck Mutate

It turns out we are not rugged individualists, just collectivists to the core.

mutationAs shocking as this may be for the Freedom of Whatever groups out there, the story of humanity is not of some creature bravely crawling out of the slime, but of tiny cells working together in frothy foam to form a sum greater than their parts.

We have this knowledge thanks in part to Ken Prehoda, a University of Oregon biochemist who along with colleagues took a cellular journey back 600 million years before mankind existed.

There are plenty of views, theories and ancient stories about how humans came to live and dominate the earth. Prehoda’s account starts with what he calls man’s protozoan predecessors. This is a relatively unique genesis moment.

Ken PrehodaWay back when, even before there a when we would recognize, Prehoda says our ancestors were single-cell water dwellers. There is no fossil evidence because these cells were the size of a pinhead and  sloshed around in the shallow seas that covered modern-day continents. Prehoda channeled what they have been like by examining current-day chaonoflagellates, tiny ball-shaped creatures that he says are our “closest living unicellular cousins.”

Conjuring ancient cellular matter using DNA as the fuel for his evolutionary time travel, Prehoda describes how single cells began working together, perhaps initially to scrounge for food. Some things are eternal.

Working collectively, the cells took advantage of what may have been the luckiest break since winning $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot. Prehoda says a single mutation occurred that allowed cells to bind together, forming multi-cellular colonies and, much later, creatures.

The proteins that allowed cellular collaboration and combination in prehistoric times, Prehoda says, still exist in our DNA today. They also exist in almost all animal genomes.

Fascinating, you might say, but who cares. After all, people still vigorously debate what prompted primates to give up living in trees and move into caves. Many doubt evolution occurred at all, favoring a more spontaneous origination of man and the animal kingdom.

Putting the Scopes Monkey Trial aside, Prehoda argues that a lucky mutation, if that phrase is meaningful, set the stage for more complex animal life to emerge. Variations reflect further adaptation and subsequent mutations. And the lesson to take away from this adapting and mutating is that cells have an intrinsic force to advance.

Cancerous mutationsThe “We all want to succeed” poster in real life are cells that have evolved functions, including killing destructive cancerous cells. Prehoda speculates one way to fight cancer is to ignite cellular communications to attack cancer. Exploit a fortuitous mutation eons ago to defeat an unlucky current-day mutation.

Darwin“That’s a very different paradigm for thinking about diseases like cancer,” Prehoda told The Washington Post. “It could allow us to think about new ways to develop therapies by focusing on genes that are involved in this unicellular to multi-cellular process.”

Who knew we could learn so much from single-cell organisms. Maybe Charles Darwin.




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