Tag Archives: genomeplex

The Genomeplex Crosses Time

Me, December 2007:

10,000 years ago the artificial genome-plex radically expanded its scope, adding plants to its army. Corn, wheat, barley, potatoes — all manner of plant species that could not exist by themselves in the wild — were artificially created from free ancestors.

When Jurassic Park came out, the idea of bringing dinosaurs back to life seemed incredible. I think now it’s just as much a matter of time. Same thing for other extinct animals, and extinct plants.

The genome-plex is preparing to cross time.

What Jurassic fruits taste the sweetest? Which plants eaten by the triceratops would make good raw material for ethanol? I think we’ll live to have a good idea of the answer to these questions.

We live in a world, radically artificial twice over, and we haven’t begun to see what it will hold.

Scientific Blogging, three days ago:

Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the University of Texas, USA, have extracted genes from the extinct Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), inserted it into a mouse and observed a biological function – this is a world first for the use of the DNA of an extinct species to induce a functional response in another living organism.

The results, published in the international scientific journal PLoS ONE this week, showed that the thylacine Col2a1 gene has a similar function in developing cartilage and bone development as the Col2a1 gene does in the mouse.

“This is the first time that DNA from an extinct species has been used to induce a functional response in another living organism,” said Dr Andrew Pask, RD Wright Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Zoology who led the research.

Not only does transtemporal genetic research (DNA science that crosses time) hold upon the promise of giving us our own pet Tasmanian tiger, it can also lead to human benefits in the form of gene therapy. Just consider how much of music aptitude is driven by genes, for example. It is conceivable that some genes that might led to truly great musicians have fallen out of the human genome due to genetic drift or other factors. Now that mere extinction does not limit what genes we can use, we might one day identiy extinct but gifted lineages of men, and some of their DNA into the contemporary population.

(I use music aptitude just as an example. The same could be true for any skill with a substantial genetic component.)

The Races of the Ancients

Genetics is fascinating. The study of population structure — those nations and races that make of humanity — has been infinitely improved by careful analysis of our genes. DNA has replaced the imprecise tools of facial features, skin color, and linguistics as the best tool for understanding the group-level diversity we see today. It was once thought (at least 10 years ago, when I came upon the theory) than the Ashkenazi Jews were an inbred German population, given their Germanic language (Yiddish) and looks that were taken to be exaggerations of European features. It is now generally accepted that the Rhinelander Jews are a Southeast European/Levantine population that at one time were more numerous than “white” Europeans.

Genetics continues to look at these subpopulations — races, you might say — deeply. Now comes an article on two ancient races, that existed for half of humanity’s history — entirely on the African continent:

Mitochondrial Eve And Humanity’s 100,000 Year Genetic Divide | Scientific Blogging
The human race was divided into two separate groups within Africa for as much as half of its existence, says a Tel Aviv University mathematician. Climate change, reduction in populations and harsh conditions may have caused and maintained the separation.

Dr. Saharon Rosset, from the School of Mathematical Sciences at Tel Aviv University, worked with team leader Doron Behar from the Rambam Medical Center to analyze African DNA. Their goal was to study obscure population patterns from hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Rosset, who crunched numbers and did the essential statistical analysis for the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, said the team was trying to understand the timing and dynamics of the split into at least two separate groups.

Recent data suggests that Eastern Africa went through a series of massive droughts between 90,000 and 135,000 years ago. It is possible that this climate shift contributed to the population splits. What is surprising is the length of time the populations were separate — for as much as half of our entire history as a species.

Dr. Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, said, “This new study illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights into some of the key events in our species’ history. Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA.”

While much of this research is conducted because of scientific curiosity, the engine that keeps it going is pharmaceuticals. There’s big money in genes, in changing how they express themselves and even changing which ones are in a body. As we resurrect long-dead plants and animals, it will be fascinating to see how many “extinct genes” rise again through gene therapy and modern medicine.

Guns, Genomes, and Steel

I’m currently watching the PBS version of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” based on the book by Jared Diamond. My take is that Guns, Germs, and Steel is a story of the rise of the genomeplex — that assortment of different species (cows, dogs, men, etc) that together make up the foundations for human culture.

In short, Diamond’s argument is that biologically-driven efficiencies in every plant and animal in the genomeplex except for homo sapiens led to the rise of homo sapiens. Clearly, biologically-driven efficiency is a powerful argument. If one’s crops provide less protein, or one’s animals are less docile, one is not going to get as far in life.

But neglecting to mention our species in a story of the rise of our genomeplex is strange. One line from the documentary I think sums of Diamond’s blindspot:

pigs do not give milk

This is obviously incorrect. Pigs are mammals. Pigs suckle their young.

Further, as far as human-drinkable milk goes — neither did cows! The ability of adults to drink cow milk comes from a mutations (several of them, occurring independently, in different places and times). Our ancestors could not drink cow milk. But our ancestors’ children were mutants.

Lactose tolerance is one mutation that occurred in some populations but not others, but there are other mutations like this too.

The rest of our genomeplex is not equal in productivity. Our species is not either.

The difference? The other animals and plants are to the extent they serve us. Humans are valuable in themselves.

Most of this world, like most of our genomeplex, has no inherent value. But humans do. And radically, all humans are equally precious.

An Artificial World

(From my comment over at DM’s blog, inspired by a conversation with Sean and a post by Shlok.)

The greatest change every to befall earth is not climate, or glaciation, or any of that: it is the rising-up of a artificial genome-plex — that giant interspecies culture that began with a few proto-chimpanzees kicked out of the forest and now stands at hundreds of species that that are “artificial” — man, dog, cat, cow, horse, and others. Of all large animals that existed before this new community, every one has since been domesticated (that is, breeding has led to the survival of docile offspring while the rest have been allowed to die off) or kept around for amusement (elephants, rhinos, and the rest)

This has never happened before.

10,000 years ago the artificial genome-plex radically expanded its scope, adding plants to its army. Corn, wheat, barley, potatoes — all manner of plant species that could not exist by themselves in the wild — were artificially created from free ancestors.

When Jurassic Park came out, the idea of bringing dinosaurs back to life seemed incredible. I think now it’s just as much a matter of time. Same thing for other extinct animals, and extinct plants.

The genome-plex is preparing to cross time.

What Jurassic fruits taste the sweetest? Which plants eaten by the triceratops would make good raw material for ethanol? I think we’ll live to have a good idea of the answer to these questions.

We live in a world, radically artificial twice over, and we haven’t begun to see what it will hold.