Hey Bill Nye! What If Life Had Evolved From Viruses?
Evolutionary biologists generally agree that humans evolved from a bacteria-like ancestor, rather than a viral one. But what if we're chemically connected?
Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life.
In Seattle Nye began to combine his love of science with his flair for comedy, when he won the Steve Martin look-alike contest and developed dual careers as an engineer by day and a stand-up comic by night. Nye then quit his day engineering day job and made the transition to a night job as a comedy writer and performer on Seattle’s home-grown ensemble comedy show “Almost Live.” This is where “Bill Nye the Science Guy®” was born. The show appeared before Saturday Night Live and later on Comedy Central, originating at KING-TV, Seattle’s NBC affiliate.
While working on the Science Guy show, Nye won seven national Emmy Awards for writing, performing, and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. In between creating the shows, he wrote five children’s books about science, including his latest title, “Bill Nye’s Great Big Book of Tiny Germs.”
Nye is the host of three currently-running television series. “The 100 Greatest Discoveries” airs on the Science Channel. “The Eyes of Nye” airs on PBS stations across the country.
Bill’s latest project is hosting a show on Planet Green called “Stuff Happens.” It’s about environmentally responsible choices that consumers can make as they go about their day and their shopping. Also, you’ll see Nye in his good-natured rivalry with his neighbor Ed Begley. They compete to see who can save the most energy and produce the smallest carbon footprint. Nye has 4,000 watts of solar power and a solar-boosted hot water system. There’s also the low water use garden and underground watering system. It’s fun for him; he’s an engineer with an energy conservation hobby.
Nye is currently the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest organization.
Viewer: Hey Bill. I'm just curious, what would life look like if it had evolved from viruses instead of bacteria?
Bill Nye: Maybe life did evolve from viruses and we just don't know it. However, it sure looks like bacteria went off on their own. And talking some more about me, in my book Undeniable, which I like to think of as a primer on evolution, I speculated that viruses should have their own domain of life, the vera, which in the Latin would be a second declension noun. In Latin apparently they did not have a plural of virus, they never needed one, they never used it in the way we use it today. So I don't know if life evolved from viruses, but in my own experience I am thoroughly charmed by the science fiction story Andromeda Strain where the compartmentalization of the chemicals needed for life was done with crystals rather than with membranes. And it's science fiction everybody, but bacteria are different from viruses in that bacteria have these separate structures whereas viruses seem to be a single molecule, what you might think of as a single molecule. And so viruses are more akin to proteins than they are to bacteria, but proteins are created by bacteria so it is very reasonable that there is some ancestor to viruses and bacteria so that they have in common a common chemical ancestor. Proving that seems to me it should be possible.
When I was growing up people celebrated and questioned and thought hard about the Miller Urey experiment or Urey Miller experiment done by these two scientists who tried to create the conditions of the primordial earth in a big glass flask. And apparently the one thing they didn't all the way figure out was sulfur, which now people generally believe would have come into the earth's atmosphere from volcanoes.
I was in school at Cornell University I walked into the Space Sciences Building when Carl Sagan was very active and teaching classes and stuff and they had the Urey Miller experiment running. It was a big glass flask with these electrodes sparking because it was presumed or is presumed that in the ancient atmosphere there was lightning and this electricity could cause chemical changes that would have been very, very fast. And so the idea is that you would look for or try to create molecules that through their natural existence created copies of themselves. And so that was the goal.
It turns out that creating amino acids, these are biological molecules that have a carbon with a double bond and an oxygen on the side, amino acids aren't apparently that hard to create. And we find them in asteroids and we find them all over the earth and scientist or chemists have been able to create amino acids that have the same pattern but don't exist in nature or we haven't found them in living systems, instead they're very similar but we don't find them in nature. So all this makes me think that it is reasonable that someone could create something akin to these primordial atmosphere primordial conditions on earth experiments that would make molecules that replicated themselves. And we would find that maybe there is a common ancestor to both viruses and bacteria. Whoa. Would that molecule be dangerous? Would it be like the super virus or the super bacterium? Intuitively I don't think so because we're all here. Whatever happened happened and it didn't kill us. So maybe you'll be the guy that figures out the Urey Miller and the next step, the next step of Urey Miller, the next step of self-replicating molecules with primordial components. It is a very compelling idea. Keep us posted.
What would life look like if it had evolved from viruses instead of bacteria? Maybe it’s what you see in the mirror, jokes Bill Nye – before setting the record straight. Most evolutionary biologists agree that bacteria-like organisms are the ancestors of humans. About two billion years ago, eukaryotes forked off from bacteria, eventually giving shape to humans, animals, plants and fungi. It’s anyone’s guess what kind of organism you’d get from the evolution of viruses but, says Nye, it’s very reasonable that there is a common chemical ancestor for both viruses and bacteria, and if someone wanted to roll up their sleeves, it would be possible to prove it. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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