October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.

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WONDER OF THE MOMENT

Entries in endosymbiont (2)

Tuesday
Jun092009

Yet More about Cell Evolution

     In my last article I wrote about the endosymbiont theory, and I mentioned that certain organelles in eukaryotic (nucleated) cells, the chloroplasts and mitochondria, seem to be descendants of ancient bacteria. The chloroplasts are very similar to certain photosynthetic bacteria, and they perform photosynthesis in plant cells. The mitochondria are very similar to certain bacteria highly efficient at harvesting energy from various energy-rich molecules, and mitochondria perform the same function in plant and animal cells.

     Lots of mysteries remain. Did other organelles descend from ancient bacteria? If so, what is the connection? If not, how did such organelles evolve. Eukaryotic cells contain movable skeletal structures, flagella for swimming, packing and shipping structures, digestive organelles—plenty of evolutionary mysteries. But a major question is Where did the nucleus come from and how did it come to its present structure? According the the endosymbiont theory, somehow the nucleus, chloroplasts, and mitochondria came together into a permanent symbiotic relationship. We know of likely bacterial ancestors for the chloroplasts and mitochondria, but what about the nucleus?

      A nucleus in a present-day eukaryotic cell contains lots of, non-circular chromosomes—the number depends on the species. For instance, each fruit fly nucleus contains four pairs of chromosomes, each human nucleus contains twenty-three pairs. The chromosomes consist of DNA wrapped around histone proteins like thread wrapped around a spool. When genes on this DNA need to be copied into RNA, the DNA containing those genes unwinds.

      The nucleus itself is enclosed in a double membrane that keeps the nuclear contents separate from the cytoplasm of the rest of the cell. This double membrane is peppered with pores to allow certain molecules through. RNA copies of genes, for instance, pass through such pores, out of the nucleus and into the cytoplasm. There they conduct the business of producing cell proteins.

      The nucleus also contains apparatus and molecules for duplicating and dividing the chromosomes during cell-division, molecules for editing and perfecting copies of DNA and RNA, and much, much more. This complex organelle, the nucleus, like the chloroplasts and mitochondria, must have descended from some kind of prokaryotic cell. But is this ancestor still around? If so, we haven’t found it, though some biologists are searching hard.

Thursday
Apr232009

Cells: An Evolutionary Tale

         Since the 1960’s, we have discovered a lot about the evolution of cells.

         Fossil evidence indicated that bacteria had not only been the first living creatures, but they had had the earth to themselves for two billion years. Bacteria are single-celled organisms. Each one carries its genes, made of DNA, in a ring-shaped chromosome folded up in a special region of the cell. Smaller rings of genes, called plasmids, sometimes accompany this chromosome.

         Over two billion years, plenty of mutations took place in bacterial genes, resulting in vast numbers of different bacterial species. Also, being single-celled, bacteria were, and are, capable of picking up chromosome fragments from one another, introducing even more new species.

         About a billion and a half years ago, a new type of organism appeared in the fossil record. Like bacteria, they consisted of single cells. But unlike bacteria, these cells carried their chromosomes enclosed within a special membrane. These membrane-enclosed chromosomes formed a “nucleus” in the new cell type. To distinguish bacteria from the new cells, biologists call bacteria “prokaryotic,” meaning “before the nucleus;” and they called nucleated cells “eukaryotic,” meaning “true nucleus.” Besides the nucleus, the new eukaryotic cells contained a number of infinitesimal organs, called “organelles.” Some of these organelles were photosynthetic and made sugar from light energy. Some did the opposite, extracting energy from sugar to run cell processes.

         Over the next billion and a half years, mutations and gene trading resulted in vast numbers of new eukaryotic species. In some cases, eukaryotic cells joined into multicellular species, such as plants, animals and fungi.

         As François Jacob famously wrote, evolution acts like a tinkerer. Old devices and mechanisms get put to new uses. So it was unlikely that eukaryotic cells had sprung up on their own. It was much more likely that they had somehow evolved out of prokaryotic cells.

         In 1967, Lynn Margulis at Boston University suggested that the first eukaryotic cell could actually have been a group of prokaryotic cells that began living together. In fact, she found that the photosynthetic organelles, called “chloroplasts,” are quite similar to certain photosynthetic bacteria. She also found that the energy-harvesting organelles, called “mitochondria,” are quite similar to certain oxygen-using bacteria. And it turned out that chloroplasts and mitochondria have their own genes, exactly as we might expect, if they were actually bacteria that just happened to be living inside another cell. Margulis’ idea is called the “endosymbiont hypothesis” or the “endosymbiont theory.” It is the beginning of some interesting stories about cell evolution. Stay tuned!