Friday, April 11, 2014

The Oldest Known Heart; Tweaking Bacteria; and Looking for Life in the Universe

A 520,000,000-year-old fossilized heart caught my eye this week: so did genetically engineered bacteria, and the continuing search for life in the universe.
  1. Fuxianhuia's Fossilized Heart: Tubular!
  2. Curli Fibers, Self-Healing Materials, and E. Coli
  3. Still Looking for Life in the Universe
As I've said before, this isn't your usual "religious" blog.

New Tech, Then and Now

I don't need an iPad to be Catholic: which is just as well, since I don't own one. My son has a smartphone, and that's another topic.

Catholics coped quite well without WiFi gadgets in their pockets: and without pockets, for that matter. But our faith doesn't depend on avoiding new ideas and technology.

We've even been at the cutting edge of new tech a few times: like Gothic cathedrals, stone buildings with walls made mostly of stained glass. The pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses of Gothic architecture are traditional now, but 12th century traditionalists were horrified at the 'barbarous' style.

Getting a Grip About Gutenberg

(From NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Then there was the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible was a Catholic Bible: in Latin, an edition of the Vulgate, a 4th-century Latin translation mostly done by St. Jerome.

If you live in an English-speaking country, you've probably heard that the Catholic Church didn't let Catholics own or read Bibles. There is a tiny dash of truth to that notion. A few priests have, over the centuries, told their parishioners to stop reading Sacred Scripture. That, in my considered opinion, was a bad idea. (January 27, 2009)

As a Catholic, reading Sacred Scripture frequently is "forcefully and specifically" encouraged. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 133)

I think some of the confusion about the Church and Bible reading comes from the rule that says we can't make up our own translation of Sacred Scripture.

Back in the Middle Ages, most Europeans didn't own Bibles for about the same reason that most Americans don't own their own helicopter:
I'm sure that some folks, Catholic and otherwise, in Gutenberg's day didn't like the new technology: particularly those who liked being part of an elite bunch of book-owners.

These days, some folks get conniptions about today's new information technology: and just about anything scientific. I'm not one of them.

Attitudes and Aliens

(From, used w/o permission.)

I'm reasonably confident that most folks recognize "Killers from Space," "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Alien Blood," and "Alien Apocalypse," as entertainment: not documentaries.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the fearful attitude I see toward bioengineering comes from a steady stream of films like "Tarantula," "Leviathan," and "Sharktopus." I've opined, or ranted, about science, technology, and movies before:
Once in a while, movies like "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" and "The Clonus Horror" touch, however lightly, on real ethical issues. (February 14, 2014; February 10, 2013)

Using the Brains God Gave Us

I don't "believe in" science and technology, in the sense that I think they're the most important aspect of reality: or can answer all my questions and needs. That would be idolatry, which is strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 2110-2114)

God made "heaven and earth," everything that exists: heaven, the physical world, angels, and living creatures. And, even though some folks don't approve, what God created is basically good. (Genesis 1:1-31; Catechism, 325-349)

Creatures with intelligence and will, like angels and us, can decide to misuse our freedom, but evil is a choice: not a destiny. (Catechism, 336-336, 385-412, 1730)

We're made in the image of God, with dominion over the physical world. That's dominion, not ownership. Our position is more like shop foreman or steward. (Genesis 1:26; Catechism, 337-349, 355, 2415)

As stewards, we need to understand what we're managing. Learning about this astounding universe, and developing new ways to use it, is part of being human. Science and technology aren't the problem: being greedy or stupid is. (Catechism, 339, 2292-2296)

1. Fuxianhuia's Fossilized Heart: Tubular!

(From Xiaoya Ma, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"The dorsal view of Fuxianhuia protensa is pictured in this handout image provided by Xiaoya Ma."
"Sea creature fossil found with oldest-known cardiovascular system"
Will Dunham, Reuters (April 7, 2014)

"Scientists said on Monday they have found a fossil of a shrimp-like creature that lived 520 million years ago with an exquisitely preserved heart and blood vessels that represent the oldest-known cardiovascular system.

"Named Fuxianhuia protensa, the creature was a primitive arthropod, a group of invertebrates with external skeletons that includes crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and shrimp as well as insects, spiders and millipedes.

"The remarkable fossil, unearthed in Yunnan province in southwestern China, dates from the 'Cambrian Explosion,' a pivotal juncture in the history of life on Earth when many major animal groups first appeared more than half a billion years ago.

" 'It is an extremely rare and unusual case that such a delicate organ system can be preserved in one of the oldest fossils and in exquisite detail,' said paleontologist Xiaoya Ma of the Natural History Museum in London, one of the researchers in the study published in the journal Nature Communications...."
Most fossils are bones, teeth, shells, and other hard parts of critters. Soft parts decay faster, so it takes special circumstances for skin or organs to fossilize.

This Fuxianhuia protensa's body was very well preserved, showing a tubular heart running down the middle of its body. From the heart, a system of blood vessels lead to the animal's eyes, antennae, brain, and legs.

Jellyfish: Heartless, Brainless

Having a circulatory system like that makes it possible for an animal to be more active. Not all animals have hearts, though. Some, like jellyfish, don't even have a brain.

Oddly enough, Box jellyfish have eyes: two of which have lenses, corneas, and retinas. These jellyfish eyes form images: but the scientists still haven't figured out how a box jellyfish uses information from its eyes without a brain.

Schematics: Arthropods, Cnidaria, and Chordates

These schematic diagrams show the general internal layout of arthropods and cnidaria.

(From Philcha, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Typical arthropod  body plan:     = heart,     = gut,     = brain, nerve cord, ganglia, O = eye.)

(From Philcha, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Typical cnidaria (jellyfish, hydra, corals, and sea anemones) body plan:      Exoderm,
     Gastroderm (Endoderm),     Mesoglea,      Digestive cavity.)

The chordate body plan is the same as arthropods, except that the nerve cord is at the top or back, and the heart starts out running along the bottom or front. This diagram compares arthropod and chordate body plans:

(From L'ontogenese, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Comparison of arthropod and chordate body plans.)

We're chordates, by the way: and that's yet another topic.

Studying Half-Billion-Year-Old Hearts and Brains: and Geko Feet

"This fossil sheds new light on the evolution of animal body organization and shows that even some of the earliest creatures resembled their relatives alive today, the researchers said.

" 'It shows that already 520 million years ago, such a system had evolved considerable complexity, particularly with respect to the rich vascularization in the head. This suggests that the brain of this species required a good supply of oxygen for its performance,' said University of Arizona neuroscientist Nicholas Strausfeld, another of the researchers....

"...Fossils of Fuxianhuia protensa have proven to be relatively common in the area where it was found. In fact, another fossilized specimen of this animal that was previously described by scientists showed the oldest-known brain.

" 'Its gut, nervous system and vascular system are indeed unmistakably similar to that of some shrimp-like crustaceans alive today,' Strausfeld said.

"Many innovations related to animal anatomy occurred during the Cambrian period, although it is unclear when key structures like the heart and brain first appeared.

"The researchers said that creatures with cardiovascular systems presumably lived earlier than this creature, but evidence is simply lacking in the fossil record...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Fuxianhuia protensa wasn't particularly large by today's standards. The vaguely shrimp-like critter was up to about four and a half inches long, with antennae and eyes on stalks.

Another Fuxianhuia protensa fossil has the oldest fossilized brain we've found so far. What's remarkable about the 520,000,000 year old brain is that it is unexpectedly complex. Its three distinct parts look like the protocerebrum, deutocerebrum and tritocerebrum we see in insects have today. (October 12, 2012)

Studying critters that died a half-billion years back probably won't lower the price of gasoline or make anyone's teeth whiter and brighter. But I think there's value in research that doesn't have immediate practical applications.

Sometimes keeping "pure" research from yielding useful, and unexpected, results seems difficult. Gila monster venom studies led to a diabetes-related drug, and what scientists learned about geko feet gave us super-adhesive Geckskin back in 2012.

Evolution, Devolution, and Barnacle Brains

(From Xiaoya Ma,Nicholas Strausfeld; via, used w/o permission.)
"This image shows a nearly intact fossil of Fuxianhuia protensa (Xiaoya Ma / Nicholas Strausfeld)"
"520-Million-Year-Old Brain Found"
Enrico de Lazaro, (October 12, 2012)

"Embedded in mudstones deposited during the Cambrian period 520 million years ago in what today is the Yunnan Province in China, the approximately 3-inch-long fossil, which belongs to the species Fuxianhuia protensa, represents an extinct lineage of arthropods combining an advanced brain anatomy with a primitive body plan.

"....'No one expected such an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of multicellular animals,' said Prof Nicholas Strausfeld, a neurobiologist with the University of Arizona and lead author of a paper describing the discovery in the journal Nature.

"Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have yet to agree on exactly how arthropods evolved, especially on what the common ancestor looked like that gave rise to insects. 'There has been a very long debate about the origin of insects. Until now, scientists have favored one of two scenarios.'

"Some believe that insects evolved from the an ancestor that gave rise to the malacostracans, a group of crustaceans that include crabs and shrimp...."
We're still sorting out how arthropods evolved, but discovering the Fuxianhuia brain narrows the field a bit. Branchiopods, a sort of crustacean, have much simpler brains than malacostracans, so some scientists said they were probably the ancestral form that led to today's arthropods.
"... the discovery of a complex brain anatomy in an otherwise primitive organism such as Fuxianhuia makes this scenario unlikely.

" 'The shape matches that of a comparable sized modern malacostracan,' the authors write in the paper. 'The fossil supports the hypothesis that branchiopod brains evolved from a previously complex to a more simple architecture instead of the other way around.'..."
(Enrico de Lazaro,
Maybe today's malacostracans are a devolved sort of arthropod, or maybe there's a more complicated explanation. Another kind of arthropod, barnacles, start life as an egg, hatch as an odd little critter with one eye, swim around until they glue themselves to something: after which their brain downsizes.

After they settle into a nice job, or retire, some folks seem to emulate the barnacle: and I'm wandering off-topic again.

2. Curli Fibers, Self-Healing Materials, and E. Coli

(From Yan Liang, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Researchers have produced 'living' materials by nudging E. coli bacteria (oblong object) to grow biological films that contain a special type of protein called curli fibers (blue lines). The team also modified these proteins to make inorganic materials, such as gold nanoparticles (gold) and quantum dots (green and red dots), to grow on the biofilms."
"Bacteria Could Grow Futuristic 'Self-Healing' Materials"
Katia Moskvitch, Live Science (April 3, 2014)

"Why bother to manufacture materials if you can grow them organically?

"Researchers have produced 'living' materials by nudging bacteria to grow biological films. In turn, this process could lead to the development of more complex and interactive structures programmed to self-assemble into specific patterns, such as those used on solar cells and diagnostic sensors, and even self-healing materials that could sense damage and repair it, a new study finds.

" 'In contrast to materials we use in modern life, which are all dead, living materials have the ability to self-heal, adapt to the environment, form into complex patterns and shapes, and generate new functional materials and devices from the bottom up," said study lead author Timothy Lu, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology...."
Since some Escherichia coli bacteria are responsible for food poisoning, I'm pretty sure that some folks are going to get upset when they hear about this research. We might even get another 'mad scientist' movie or two out of this.

More seriously, I'm also sure that someone will find a way to misuse this new technology. I've written about human nature and all that before. (July 11, 2012)

Folks have noticed that trouble and people go together for a long time. I don't think technology, old or new, makes us do bad things:
"2 But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:7)

Familiar, Yes; "Natural," No

Making organic materials is nothing new. Leather may seem "natural," since we've been making it for a long time: but it's as artificial as paper or string.

We've been tweaking critters to suit our needs for a long time, too. (November 22, 2013; August 8, 2013)

We're supposed to study this creation, developing new ways of using it. That's not the old 'pillage the world' attitude. We're stewards, given the duty of managing its resources for future generations. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2296, 2402, 2415-2418)

Maybe someone will get upset about scientists 'enslaving' bacteria by reprogramming them. I don't see a moral/ethical issue with tweaking bacteria so that they manufacture useful items: although, again, someone will almost certainly find a way to misuse this new tech.

3. Still Looking for Life in the Universe

(From PHL @ UPR Arecibo, used w/o permission.)
"The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog now list a dozen object [s] of interest as potentially habitable worlds with the addition of two planets, Gliese 667C e and f (Gliese 667C c was known since early 2012). Image released June 25, 2013."
"Is Alien Life Out There? Vatican Observatory Co-Hosts Science Conference in Arizona"
Megan Gannon, (March 16, 2014)

"Are we alone in the universe? The ultimate question of life beyond Earth and the solar system takes center stage in a science conference led by the Vatican Observatory and a University of Arizona this week.

"Nearly 200 scientists are attending the conference, called 'The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature & Instruments,' which runs from March 16 through 21 in Tucson, Ariz. The Vatican Observatory is co-hosting the conference with the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

" 'Finding life beyond Earth is one of the great challenges of modern science and we are excited to have the world leaders in this field together in Tucson,' said event co-chair Daniel Apai, assistant professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at the UA Steward Observatory, in a statement. 'But reaching such an ambitious goal takes planning and time. The goal of this meeting is to discuss how we can find life among the stars within the next two decades.'

"Rev. Paul Gabor of the Vatican Observatory, the conference's other co-chair, added that scientists will give more than 160 research presentations during this week's conference...."
My hat's off to, for not expressing amazement that a Catholic institution supports scientific research. However, "Rev. Paul Gabor of the Vatican Observatory" is Father Paul Gabor, a Jesuit.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a week devoted to exobiology back in 2009. They called it astrobiology that time:
  • "Study Week on Astrobiology"
    The Pontifical Academy of Sciences (November 6-10, 2009)
    (from The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, archived ca. October 2, 2011)
This year's ebi2014 conference isn't open to the public, but you may find something interesting on their website; then again, maybe not:
There's a lot to discuss, like finding and imaging exoplanets, how to spot biosignatures in their atmospheres, and critters living in what we think of as extreme environments here on Earth.

The idea isn't that extremophiles are really space aliens. Studying critters that tolerate acids, alkalies, radiation; or thrive around hydrothermal vents; may give scientists ideas for what they could be looking for in the rest of the universe.

Life and Assumptions

(From xkcd, used w/o permission.)

I don't "believe in" life on other planets. Not in the UFO religion sense. Like I've said before, idolatry is a bad idea, and against the rules.

Besides, my guess is that finding neighbors like the groovy visitors of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," is as wildly unlikely as running into the memory-sucking invaders of "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers." More of my take on assumptions and life in the universe:
I don't think secular saviors will descend from the stars, or that space aliens landed during the 20th century: without anybody noticing. Either of those scenarios is, in my considered opinion, silly.

I don't think that there is life of any sort elsewhere in the universe: or that there isn't life anywhere except Earth.

Right now, we don't know.

"Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?"

We've found chemicals needed for life on other planets, and discovered that DNA may form on diamond crystals. This is not proof that life exists anywhere except on Earth: but I think the chances for finding life in the universe keep looking better, the more we learn.

God could have created a universe that's teeming with life: or not. I won't claim that the Almighty can't do something. God's God, I'm not, and I do not need that kind of trouble.

That said, I hope there is life on other worlds. Maybe even folks like us, intelligent and self-aware creatures who are both spirit and matter.

If we do have neighbors, we may be working on the job outlined in Matthew 28:19 for a very long time.

I'm far from the first person to think about decisions we'll face if we have neighbors:
"...Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don't think you'd even have the right to call them aliens."
("Brother Astronomer;" Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))
And that's yet again another topic.

Related posts, about life:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.