Aliens in Our Midst

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A beautiful mind; ctenophore Beroe cucumisPhoto by Bill Curtsinger/National Geographic

 

01 August 2017 |Douglas Fox| Aeon

The ctenophore’s brain suggests that, if evolution began again, intelligence would re-emerge because nature repeats itself

“Leonid Moroz has spent two decades trying to wrap his head around a mind-boggling idea: even as scientists start to look for alien life in other planets, there might already be aliens, with surprisingly different biology and brains, right here on Earth.

Those aliens have hidden in plain sight for millennia. They have plenty to teach us about the nature of evolution, and what to expect when we finally discover life on other worlds.

Moroz, a neuroscientist, saw the first hint of his discovery back in the summer of 1995, not long after arriving in the United States from his native Russia. He spent that summer at the Friday Harbor marine laboratory in Washington.

The lab sat amid an archipelago of forested islands in Puget Sound – a crossroads of opposing tides and currents that carried hundreds of animal species past the rocky shore: swarms of jellyfish, amphipod crustaceans, undulating sea lilies, nudibranch slugs, flatworms, and the larvae of fish, sea stars and countless other animals.

These creatures represented not just the far reaches of Puget Sound, but also the farthest branches of the animal tree of life. Moroz spent hours out on the pier behind the lab, collecting animals so he could study their nerves. He had devoted years to studying nervous systems across the animal kingdom, in hopes of understanding the evolutionary origin of brains and intelligence. But he came to Friday Harbor to find one animal in particular.

He trained his eyes to recognise its bulbous, transparent body in the sunlit water: an iridescent glint and fleeting shards of rainbow light, scattered by the rhythmic beating of thousands of hair-like cilia, propelling it through the water.

This type of animal, called a ctenophore (pronounced ‘ten-o-for’ or ‘teen-o-for’), was long considered just another kind of jellyfish. But that summer at Friday Harbor, Moroz made a startling discovery: beneath this animal’s humdrum exterior was a monumental case of mistaken identity.

From his very first experiments, he could see that these animals were unrelated to jellyfish. In fact, they were profoundly different from any other animal on Earth.

Moroz reached this conclusion by testing the nerve cells of ctenophores for the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and nitric oxide, chemical messengers considered the universal neural language of all animals. But try as he might, he could not find these molecules. The implications were profound.

The ctenophore was already known for having a relatively advanced nervous system; but these first experiments by Moroz showed that its nerves were constructed from a different set of molecular building blocks – different from any other animal – using ‘a different chemical language’, says Moroz: these animals are ‘aliens of the sea’.

If Moroz is right, then the ctenophore represents an evolutionary experiment of stunning proportions, one that has been running for more than half a billion years. This separate pathway of evolution – a sort of Evolution 2.0 – has invented neurons, muscles and other specialised tissues, independently from the rest of the animal kingdom, using different starting materials.

This animal, the ctenophore, provides clues to how evolution might have gone if not for the advent of vertebrates, mammals and humans, who came to dominate the ecosystems of Earth.

It sheds light on a profound debate that has raged for decades: when it comes to the present-day face of life on Earth, how much of it happened by pure accident, and how much was inevitable from the start?

If evolution were re-run here on Earth, would intelligence arise a second time? And if it did, might it just as easily turn up in some other, far-flung branch of the animal tree? The ctenophore offers some tantalising hints by showing just how different from one another brains can be.

Brains are the crowning case of convergent evolution – the process by which unrelated species evolve similar traits to navigate the same kind of world. Humans might have evolved an unprecedented intellect, but the ctenophore suggests that we might not be alone. The tendency of complex nervous systems to evolve is probably universal – not just on Earth, but also in other worlds.

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