Most people might think that evolution as a whole was a carefully planned process underwent in order to better facilitate the propagation of life on our planet. But a new study conducted at the University of Oregon points out the fact that evolution might have been started by a random mutation, forcing single-cell organisms to become multi-cellular.
What is intriguing is the fact that only one mutation sparked everything, not a complex series of concomitant events. True, this genetic alteration is not the sole proprietor of evolution, but without it, us humans and every other multi-cellular organism on our planet would not be here at all.
Genetic mutations usually cause severe malformations in the system which can lead to the death of the subject, but in some cases, they can lead to massive improvements in comparison to the organism’s previous installment. Even though this example is in the realm of fiction, think of it like a sort of X-men, with just a slight mistake in the genetic makeup leading to the subject’s ability to shoot lasers out of his eyes or have an abnormally fast healing factor.
The study in question was conducted on the closest relatives to animals that are still single-celled organisms, a tiny sea sponge named Choanoflagellates. These sea dwellers have a tiny tail that is used for locomotion and usually carry out their lives in massive colonies.
By using a process known as ancestral protein reconstruction, researchers were able to somewhat travel back in time 600 million years, when the switch from single-celled organisms to multi-celled ones happened. A gene from the creature’s tail was slightly altered during division, the method through which the choanoflagellates reproduce, allowing them to link up to one another while in a colony.
By using this interconnectivity between colony members, these sponge-like creatures functioned as a team in order to process a higher amount of food, as well as swim in a more efficient manner. Tweaking just one protein from the DNA, enzymes which are usually used to facilitate cell reactions turned into interaction domains.
These protein domains effectively switched single-cell individualist behavior towards a more group-like interaction. This type of protein was then passed on throughout the species, being present in all multi-cellular organisms, ranging from dinosaurs and fish to mammals such as us humans.
The findings of this study are not important just for their ability to reveal to researchers how life evolved into what we know today. They can also be extensively applied to modern medicine, in regards to cancerous cells.
Cancer can be described as a change in cell behavior, with protein domains switching back to their ancestral roots, making cancerous cells “forget” that they are a part of a group. This makes them function as unicellular organisms once again, Because they are no longer part of the group, the whole cell-colony suffers, leading to diseases, while the individual cells act on their own in order to live, creating cancer along the way.
The concept that evolution might have been started by a random mutation can shine a light on how exactly specific proteins suffer modifications that lead the to an involution from multi-celled to unicellular states. A conclusive cure may be made possible through external genetic alteration, an idea that has already been tackled by several medical circles, not only limited to an effective form of cancer treatment.