Monday, 16 July 2012

No, It's not Jurassic Park in a Petri Dish. Or a 500 million year old gene.

Science Journalists
Science Journalists
This has popped up in the news quite a bit over the last few days:

Scientists place 500-million-year-old gene in modern organism

Very interesting, but a couple of things bothered me.

First of all, it's difficult enough to find genetic information from thousands of years ago, let alone from more than 500 million years ago, a time which pre-dates the colonisation of land by plants. I was hoping to read that ancient DNA had been found and inserted into a modern bacteria. Nope. No mention in any article I could find about where the gene actually came from.

Secondly, I could imagine the horrendously bad science news reporting which would follow. Probably something mentioning Jurassic Park and comments from readers about how evil and stupid scientists are. Lets see...

Jurassic Park in a Petri dish: Scientists bring 500 million-year-old bacteria back to life - what could possibly go wrong?

- 'Frankenstein' germ spliced with gene from 500-million-year-old bacteria
- Bacteria is now thriving in lab
- Some of the 'chimeric' E Coli is now stronger than normal bacteria
- Scientists hope to 'restage' evolution


Some comments from that article:

"Sounds like a wild card for more funding"

"we have a mistrust of the responsibility of scientists, since they poured their cultures of Foot and Mouth down the sink and started the biggest epidemic in recent history"

"Dinosaurs would be a lot easier to kill and much safer to have around than a rapidly mutating bacteria"

"It's like a cross between "I am Legend" and "Jurassic Park". Bacteria that died out millions of years ago has not place in today's world. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should!"

"Scary what scientists are allowed to play with these days, it will be in the military's hands by the end of the day guaranteed."

"What if something bad was to happen, why do these scientists get funded to potentially put the innocent lives of people at risk?"

"This brings the old saying, "curiosity killed the cat" to the forefront of my mind. Damn Scientists, will they ever learn?"

I wanted to know where the hell this single gene which creates a particular protein actually came from, so I emailed the media relations bloke from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the research was performed. He sent me a couple of articles, one being the published scientific article itself, and another being a helpful article in relatively plain language:

"The method is analogous to historical linguistics, which reconstructs ancient languages by finding similarities in their descendant languages. Instead of words or sounds, scientists match up similarities in the amino acids of various existing proteins to reconstruct the amino-acid sequences of ancient proteins. They then recreate, or "resurrect," these proteins in the laboratory."

So there you have it. They didn't find 500 million year old DNA and resurrect an ancient bacteria, they recreated a protein which probably existed in the common ancestor of modern bacteria.

"He and Benner then tested what happened to the protein at various temperatures. Between 130 and 150 degrees [Farenheit], it performed best at its task -- which involves translating the information in its DNA through RNA into the completed protein. At hotter temperatures, the ancient protein fell apart.

Benner cautions the findings do not imply that the entire Earth was 130 to 150 degrees a billion years ago or longer, but rather that the bacterium whose genes survived to be relayed into descendant organisms thrived at that temperature. Why it proved so successful is a mystery, he said.

"For some reason, bacteria living at 130 to 150 degrees have made some innovation which allows them to leave their descendants all over the planet, not the other guys that we presume were living in other environments," he said. "And that's an astonishment to me.""

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