Saturday, December 09, 2006
Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post has an amusing take on the sequencing of the sea urchin genome:
Ah. Right. About damned time, too. I knew I would write about this, because you never want to pass up an opportunity to use the excellent word "urchin." A columnist has to use as many good words as possible, such as "ungulate," "scabrous," "thwap!" (sound effect), "gnomic," "mephitic," "prelapsarian," "antediluvian" (but not in the same sentence as "prelapsarian"), "skeezy" and (not for the amateur) "farraginous."After intensive research he discovered that a sea urchin is "one of those spiky things you see on coral reefs" and "a brainless, eyeless, plodding creature that moves about with the help of little 'tube feet'."
As to the sciency bits:
One suspects that, after years of discovery of highly conserved genes, the scientists' "surprise" was more a function of the press release process than anticipation failure. Anyway, after noting the finding of protein critical to human sight in the sea urchin's tube feet (biologist George Weinstock's sound bite: "Sea urchins see with their feet") and a protein involved in human hearing being found in sea urchin spines:What surprised scientists when they finished the sea urchin project is that we have so many genetic similarities.
"Many, many of the genes in sea urchins are the same as genes in humans," said George Weinstock, a biologist at Baylor, who, like Sodergren, is a lead author of the new paper in the journal Science.
The point here isn't that humans are similar to sea urchins. We're radically different creatures. The big revelation is that evolution is highly conservative. When it makes something new, it employs the familiar stuff already lying around.
Consider that we parted ways -- the urchins and humans -- about 500 million years ago. We've headed down wildly divergent paths, one leading to the coral reef, the other to the office cubicle. But we're both built of pretty much the same off-the-shelf material -- just tweaked a bit.
Weinstock said, "After millions of years of evolution, the things we have are the things that have survived very extensive testing. These are the things that work very well. And you just tinker with that."
We often imagine that doing something new and extraordinary would require that we change radically in some way. We think we'd need a new job, new residence, new religion or, in my case, a brain transplant. But you can do almost anything with what you already have. Evolution shows the way.
Laboratory scientists love sea urchins. They reproduce by squirting eggs and sperm into the water (the sea urchins, I'm talking about) ...PZ Myearshertz has already given us a glimpse into laboratory libidos ... more than we ever wanted to know, in fact.