Scientists Develop New Computational Method To Investigate Origin Of Life

By | September 4, 2008

Scientists at Penn State have developed a new computational method that they say will help them to understand how life began on Earth. The team’s method has the potential to trace the evolutionary histories of proteins all the way back to either cells or viruses, thus settling the debate once and for all over which of these life forms came first. …

The team is focusing on an ancient group of proteins, called retroelements, which comprise approximately 50 percent of the human genome by weight and are a crucial component in a number of diseases, including AIDS. “Retroelements are an ancient and highly diverse class of proteins; therefore, they provide a rigorous benchmark for us to test our approach. We are happy with the results we derived, even though our method is in an early stage,” said Patterson. The team plans to make the algorithms that they used in their method available to others as open-source software that is freely available on the Web.

Scientists map out the evolutionary histories of organisms by comparing their genetic and/or protein sequences. Those organisms that are closely related and share a recent common ancestor have greater degrees of similarity among their sequences. In their paper, the researchers describe how they used 11 groups of the retroelement proteins — ranging from bacteria to human HIV — to trace the evolutionary histories of retroelements. Their method uses a computer algorithm to generate evolutionary profiles — also called phylogenetic profiles — that are compared all-against-all. For example, given four sequences, the new method compares profile A to profiles B, C, and D; it compares profile B to profiles C and D; and so on, for a total of six comparisons. The method then selects the regions of the profiles that match and creates a tree-like diagram, called a phylogenetic tree, based on the retroelements’ similarities to one another. The tree provides evolutionary distance estimates and, hence, phylogenetic relationships among retroelements. – ScienceDaily

Great! Some claim that humans are too complicated to have occurred by chance, and so, an all powerful man with a white beard must have created us. Perhaps techniques like this will solve the debate once and for all. They might even show that our DNA was intelligently altered by aliens several times during Earth’s evolution as some claim.

I wonder if the same technique could be used to show a person’s family tree in the entire picture of human evolution? Perhaps in a few years we will be able to access something like this on line. But first, we need a way (at home) to get one person’s 20,000-25,000 genes uploaded for a complete analysis.

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