Evolution

During the winter of 1944, the Nazis blocked food supplies to the western Netherlands, creating a period of widespread famine and devastation. The impact of starvation on expectant mothers were also an epigenetic experiment — a way to monitor changes resulting from external rather than genetic influences.

The results in those families have suggested that the body's physiological responses to hardship could be inherited. If so, the underlying mechanism remained a mystery.

In a recent Cell paper, researchers explore a genetic mechanism that passes on the body's response to starvation to subsequent generations of worms, with potential implications for humans also exposed to starvation and other physiological challenges, such as anorexia nervosa.


Parts of the primordial soup in which life arose have been maintained in our cells today, according to a new paper.

The articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry
 discusses how cells in plants, yeast and very likely also in animals still perform ancient reactions thought to have been responsible for the origin of life – some four billion years ago.

The primordial soup theory suggests that life began in a pond or ocean as a result of the combination of metals, gases from the atmosphere and some form of energy, such as a lightning strike, to make the building blocks of proteins which would then evolve into all species.


Models for the evolution of life are now being developed to try and clarify the long term dynamics of an evolving system of species. Specifically, a recent model proposed by Petri Kärenlampi from the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu accounts for species interactions with various degrees of symmetry, connectivity, and species abundance. This is an improvement on previous, simpler models, which apply random fitness levels to species.

The findings demonstrate that the resulting replicator ecosystems do not appear to be a self-organized critical model, unlike the so-called Bak Sneppen model, a reference in the field. The reasons for this discrepancy are not yet known.


Woodrats lost their ability to eat toxic creosote bushes after antibiotics killed their gut microbes. Woodrats that never ate the plants were able to do so after receiving fecal transplants with microbes from creosote-eaters, University of Utah biologists found.

The new study confirms what biologists long have suspected: bacteria in the gut – and not just liver enzymes – are "crucial in allowing herbivores to feed on toxic plants," says biologist Kevin Kohl, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of a new paper in Ecology Letters.


A new paper in Astrobiology says we will need to look to oceans to find life on Earth-like planets. Most computer simulations of habitable climates on Earth-like planets have focused on their atmospheres, but as is easily seen on Venus, the presence of oceans is vital for optimal climate stability and habitability.

Their model simulated pattern of ocean circulation on a hypothetical ocean-covered Earth-like planet. They looked at how different planetary rotation rates would impact heat transport with the presence of oceans taken into account. 


The relics of ancient viruses preserved in the genomes of 38 mammal species have provided insight into cancer’s ‘footprint’ on our evolution.

Viral relics are evidence of the ancient battles our genes have fought against infection. Occasionally the retroviruses that infect an animal get incorporated into that animal’s genome and sometimes these relics get passed down from generation to generation – termed ‘endogenous retroviruses’ (ERVs). Because ERVs may be copied to other parts of the genome they contribute to the risk of cancer-causing mutations.


Evidence from human famines and animal studies suggests that starvation can affect the health of descendants of famished individuals, but how such an acquired trait might be transmitted from one generation to the next?

A new study involving roundworms finds that starvation induces specific changes in small RNAs and that these changes are inherited through at least three consecutive generations, apparently without any DNA involvement. The paper in Cell offers new evidence that the biology of inheritance is more complicated than previously thought.


What 'separates us from the animals'. as the saying goes?

Not a lot. We're all animals, of course, but among primates there is an easy-to-spot difference: Humans tend to walk in lateral sequences, a foot down and then a hand on the same side and then moved in the same sequence on the other side, while apes and other non-human primates walk in a diagonal sequence, in which they put down a foot on one side and then a hand on the other side, continuing that pattern as they move along. 

What does that mean? It means quadripedalism, such as among the five Turkish siblings profiled in the 2006 BBC2 documentary "The Family That Walks on All Fours", does not mean anyone is devolving or evolving backwards.


Recent re-examination of a 100,000 year old early human skull using micro-CT scans has revealed the interior configuration of a temporal bone thought to occur only in Neanderthals.

The fossilized human skull was found during 1970s excavations at the Xujiayao site in China's Nihewan Basin.  Since Western Europe and Eastern Asia are a long way apart, "The discovery places into question a whole suite of scenarios of later Pleistocene human population dispersals and interconnections based on tracing isolated anatomical or genetic features in fragmentary fossils," said study co-author Erik Trinkaus, PhD, anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. 


Evolutionary adaptations have allowed Tibetans to have no trouble living at 13,000 feet, but how they became able to conquer the harsh environment of hypoxia has long been a mystery.