HOUSTON -- Nov. 13, 2007 -- What is the fundamental creative force behind life on Earth" It's a question that has vexed mankind for millennia, and thanks to theory and almost a year's worth of number-crunching on a supercomputer, Rice University physicist and bioengineer Michael Deem thinks he has the answer: A changing environment may organize the structure of genetic information itself.
Deem's research is available online and slated to appear next month in Physical Review Letters.
"Our results suggest that the beautiful, intricate and interrelated structures observed in nature may be the generic result of evolution in a changing environment," Deem said. "The existence of such structure need not necessarily rest on intelligent design or the anthropic principle."
The information that allows all living things to survive and reproduce is encoded in genes. Deem's theory probed the structure of this genetic information, looking for patterns that were created over time.
The study by Deem and postdoctoral fellow Jun Sun found the structure of genetic information becomes increasingly modular when two conditions are taken as givens: horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and a changing environment. Like modular furniture that can be rearranged in different functional patterns, modular genes are standardized components that lend themselves to flexible rearrangement, and this genetic modularity arises spontaneously because of the selective pressure of a changing environment and the existence of horizontal gene transfer.
Genes are typically transferred vertically. People, plants and animals pass genes vertically, from generation to generation, through sexual reproduction. Bacteria transfer genes vertically via conjugation. HGT allows genes, pieces of genes and collections of genes to move between species, even in cases where vertical transfer is physically impossible.
Though scientists have known about HGT for years, it was th
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