Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Evolution in the News

Yes, Darwin Day is over, but since today is - well you know, a certain date and day of the week - I'll pretend it's still yesterday.

Two interesting news stories today, both with an evolutionary theme. Nicolas Wade reports on progress in reconstructing the genome of Neanderthals. There are some misconceptions about these creatures -- they are not our ancestors, or a more primitive version of Homo sapiens, but rather a closely related species that diverged from our direct line. They lived in Europe, and went extinct about 30,000 years ago after Homo sapiens arrived in the area.

It is possible, sadly, that we outcompeted them or even massacred them. Neanderthals had a static culture which was not as technologically sophisticated as that of their contemporary H sapiens, so that could certainly have been the story. People have speculated whether the species interbred and the conclusion from this work so far is, apparently not. This is all very interesting and will no doubt ultimately yield further insights into human evolution but I just want to comment on a truly weird element of this story, which is that some scientists are speculating about the possibility of resurrecting the Neanderthals.

The idea would be to construct a complete Neanderthal genome by making the appropriate modifications in H sapiens genes, inserting the chromosomes into a chimpanzee ovum and then implanting the embryo in a chimpanzee mother, on the grounds that using a human ovum and surrogate mother creates greater ethical problems. This is actually not possible using current technology, but if Bill Gates wanted to fund a project, it could probably be accomplished. I certainly doubt that Bill would be interested, but there are plenty of wacko rich people out there so you never know.

Whether or not you think the whole idea is unethical, or just grotesque, as a thought experiment it is definitely entertaining. For starters, if someone were to do it, would we owe the Neanderthals the same respect and rights we grant to H sapiens? Okay then, why don't we give the same respect to chimps? They're only slightly more distantly related. We don't know whether Neanderthals could talk, but is that the criterion? African gray parrots can talk, and they can learn to communicate with humans using syntax.

The other major genetic breakthrough of the day, also reported by Mr. Wade, is the sequencing of the genome of all 99 strains of the cold virus. There's good news and bad news. You want the good news first? Okay, there is a region which has been strongly conserved by evolution, in other words all the strains have this in common. Evidently it's necessary for the virus to be successful. That means it could be a target for an antiretroviral drug that would be effective against all cold viruses.

The bad news? No drug company is likely to undertake an effort to develop such a drug. Since colds are just a nuisance for most people, we just wouldn't pay big bucks for it, number one; and number two, it would only take a few doses at most to do the job, so the market wouldn't be large enough for them to make money charging low prices. They're much more interested in drugs that don't cure people, that you need to keep taking forever; or drugs for life threatening conditions that they can charge tens of thousands of dollars for, e.g. cancer chemotherapy.

That does not mean that there wouldn't be a net benefit to society from development of a cure for the common cold, however. So here's one more reason why we need to completely change the drug development process. New drug development should be publicly funded, based on calculations about what's best for the public. Then the government can license the meds to manufacturers. How's that for a plan?

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