New study reveals that reincarnation is real — kind of

Nematodes demonstrate that neurons can influence offspring's genetics.

Reincarnation
Photo by Jeremy Horner/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes can transmit information about the environment through neurons to future generations.
  • Research from Tel Aviv University pushes back against the "second law of biology," which states that heritable information is segregated from somatic influences.
  • If applicable to humans, this research could have important uses in medicine.


A study at Tel Aviv University published in the journal Cell suggests reincarnation, or a phenomenon much like it, is real after all. Well, for germ cells. Nematodes (worms that contain nearly the same number of genes as humans) transmit information through neurons to future generations.

This is likely the reason many animals are born keenly aware of their environment. Insects must make haste upon breaking through their shell; certain mammals are engaged in a life or death struggle from their very first breath. We've long known animals are born with an internal guiding system helping them navigate environmental tyranny. This study details how this happens, for worms at least.

Professor Oded Rechavi, in the Department of Neurobiology at Tel Aviv University, explains:

"The mechanism is controlled by small RNA molecules, which regulate gene expression. We found that small RNAs convey information derived from neurons to the progeny and influence a variety of physiological processes, including the food-seeking behavior of the progeny."

Rechavi believes this research pushes back against biological dogma (the "Weissmann barrier") claiming that heritable information is segregated from somatic influences. The study details the worm's nervous system as being genetically encoded with both internal and external knowledge. Animals are born with a sense of place inherited from their parents.

Rechavi and team determined this by cutting off certain progeny's smelling abilities, which is necessary for identifying food sources.

"We discovered that synthesis of small RNAs in neurons is needed for the worm to efficiently be attracted to odors associated with essential nutrients — to look for food. The small RNAs produced in the parents' nervous system influenced this behavior, as well as the expression of many germline genes that persisted through at least three generations."

Whether or not the same mechanism works in humans remains to be seen. Unlike nematodes, we're notoriously slow developers. Babies are completely dependent on caretakers for years. In this regard, we're an exception in the animal kingdom. Genetic reincarnation in worms might not be applicable to humans.

Nematode or Roundworm (Nematoda)

Artwork by Rebecca Hardy (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Yet, if it is, Rechavi says it could have a very practical use in medicine. As physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The Gene, the booming field of genetics is helping us construct "a new epidemiology of self." He continues,

"We are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences — and ultimately, fate and choice — in terms of genes and genomes."

If their evidence holds up in humans, Rechavi believes it could help doctors design better diagnostics and therapies. Identifying diseases earlier in life (maybe even before a child is born) increases their chance of survival, even, as it turns out, across multiple generations. It could, Rechavi concludes, "potentially influence an organism's evolutionary course."

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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