The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

October 19, 2023

Which came first, the chicken or the iridescent opalized ammonite?

For 100 years, scientists have wondered which organic compounds were present in the primordial soup of early Earth—and how they churned and turned, slowly, over billions of years, in the first baby steps of life’s emergence that eventually evolved into the complex living world we have today. But forget about chemistry! What of geology? Long before the emergence of life 2.5 billions years ago, as the Earth formed and cooled, crazy geologic processes mixed hot fluids with rock. That gave birth to an increasingly complex landscape of more than 1,500 minerals. Then as life emerged, it poisoned the atmosphere with oxygen, became multicellular, started photosynthesis, and started to crawl, and those minerals fundamentally influenced the direction and path of biological evolution. Life in turn shaped the geological landscape, and these two systems, biological and mineral, interacted to create the world as we know it today, with biodiversity begetting mineral diversity begetting biodiversity, begetting the same again.

This is all explained by “a missing law of nature” proposed this week by a group of astronomers, biologists, geologists, and philosophers at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., Cornell University, and several other institutions. They call it the Law of Increasing Functional Information and say it’s relevant not only to life and geology on Earth but to fundamental bio- and geophysical processes everywhere in the universe. You can try to puzzle your way through the paper as we did, or you can just wait for the movie: Jurassic WHAT?! PNAS

With the progress of the evolution of life from single-celled to multicellular organisms and the formation of ecosystems, the mineralogy of the surface of the Earth became more complex, according to the new theory. Courtesy Robert Lavinsky

The spermidine and the egg

As women age, their ability to have children decreases due to reduced egg reserves and a decline in egg quality. But now researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University in China have found that a substance called spermidine can protect eggs from aging. Originally isolated in semen, spermidine is a small molecule found in many other parts of the body (both male and female) and found in lots of foods and popular supplements. In experiments with mice and pigs, the researchers discovered that adding spermidine to ovaries improved egg development, quality, and fertility by enhancing cellular processes in the eggs. More research is needed, they write, to determine if spermidine has the same effect in people and whether it’s safe and effective for improving fertility in older women. Nature Aging

The eyes have it

Researchers at Stanford University have identified the cellular drivers of aging and disease in the human eye. They used AI to map the origins of 5,953 proteins detected in the eye’s aqueous humor liquid taken from tiny drops of eye fluid routinely removed during eye surgeries. They tied this to single-cell analyses showing which genes are expressed in all the different types of cells in the eye, and they discovered connections between retinal degeneration and Parkinson’s disease—as well as changes in diabetic retinopathy over time. This approach “has the potential to transform molecular diagnostics and prognostics,” they say—both for ocular diseases as well as diseases involving other organs. Cell

Genome sequencing not the predictor of disease we hoped it would be

One big draw in getting your genome sequenced is the promise it will reveal risk markers of both well-known and obscure diseases—so that you can hopefully do something about them early. But there are lots of false positives, false negatives, and plain old-fashioned false hope in the industry today, according to doctors at University College London. Looking at 926 polygenic risk scores used in population screening or to generate individual risk predictions for 310 diseases, they found on average only 11 percent of people at risk of a given disease are correctly identified by genetic screens, while 5 percent of the people flagged at risk never develop the disease. Basically, they conclude, genetic risk scores are not that useful in predicting disease. “Strong claims about the effect of polygenic risk scores on health care seem to be disproportionate to their performance,” they write. BMJ Medicine

Here comes photopharmacology

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a research method of controlling opioid drugs in the brain using light, which they call in vivo photopharmacology. Traditional methods for delivering drugs in the brain are slow, invasive, and hard to measure, they write. Their new “caged” opioid drugs, which they named photoactivatable oxymorphone (PhOX) and photoactivatable naloxone (PhNX), are a dramatic improvement. They are inactive when injected but could be precisely activated in the brain with light, allowing the researchers to more study how they affect brain function and behaviors—in this case related to pain perception and reward-seeking. “This work establishes a general experimental framework for using in vivo photopharmacology to study the neural basis of drug action,” they write. Neuron

A decentralized autonomous biotech

A year ago we reported on VitaDAO, a distributed autonomous organization (DAO), and how they had given $350,000 to Vera Gorbunova, a scientist and co-chair of the University of Rochester’s Aging Research Center. Her work aims to screen for longevity-enhancing molecules and develop drugs for cancer and other aging-related diseases based on the biology of the methuselahs of the rodent world: naked mole rats, which live more than 10 times longer than other rodents on average. Now VitaDAO is teaming up with Gorbunova to fund its first biotech company, Pfizer-backed Matrix Biosciences. The initial investment is small—$300,000—but with the promise of more to come. Labiotech

Pity the poor praying mantis when its parasites are pulling the strings

The concept of “extended phenotype” holds that the genes of one creature can determine the observable traits or characteristics of another. It’s apparent in parasites like Toxoplasma gondii, the cause of toxoplasmosis, which express their genes to manipulate the behaviors of their infected hosts. Now researchers at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research, Kobe University, and the Osaka Medical and Pharmaceutical University in Japan have shown some parasites go even further. They actually “borrow” their host’s genes through a process known as horizontal gene transfer. Specifically the research looked at nematomorphs, which are also known as hair worms (two words, incidentally, that should never have appeared together in the English language). They have apparently evolved the ability to steal genes from mantis insects they infect, and when they express those genes, that induces their normally land-based insect hosts to jump into water and drown. This is great for the worms because that’s where they like to reproduce. But talk about a bad house guest! Current Biology