Dec 6, 2016

New Worlds for Digging

Fossils have always tickled my imagination. The simple fact that an organism can be preserved for millions, and sometimes billions of years is tantalizing to me. When fossils were first unearthed, humans began to understand the ancient origins of life. As we acquired the ability to dig deeper and deeper, more and more of earth’s biography was written, all full of surprises.

As it turns out, nature spared no parts in generating a stunning radiation of life that still to this day has only been partially discovered and even less so described. Notably, the cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 500 million years ago is considered the big bang of biology, as it spawned numerous diverse species.

This event is obvious in the fossil record and its full extent will likely never be known. There will always be dirt to dig and so it is likely that we will be digging up fossils for plenty a time to come. This is great news because fossils continue to unravel mysteries about the past that help us understand our own origins. Scientists are now finding that some fossils may even tell us something about the future.

But before jumping into hyperspace mode, there are some friends I must pay due. For a long time I associated fossils explicitly with dinosaurs. Probably because they make awesome fossils. So much so that I was responsible for plenty of unwanted ‘dig sites’ as a youngster (I was hoping to piece together a T-Rex one day but never got around to it).

In any case, the original discovery of the gargantuan creatures we now know of as dinosaurs must have truly been surprising. They have since captivated minds enough to inform the field of paleontology. Although dinosaurs leave behind the most obvious kind of fossils, remnants of over a hundred thousand other species have now been discovered.

So far only fossils in the ‘bare bones’ sense of the word have been discussed. However, scientists are beginning to redefine what a fossil is and how to find them. Take for example your neighborhood astrophysicist. In 1964, a few of these stargazers realized something mind-blowing. What they thought was noise coming from their fancy radio telescope was actually the remnant of a death-star-status explosion that happened over thirteen billion years ago! The cosmic background radiation is an ancient artifact that is now a cornerstone concept in the big bang theory and arguably the oldest fossil in the known universe. Well, I should say, our known universe. What is interesting to note is that it was not a shovel that allowed these astrophysicists to find this magnificent fossil, but a telescope.

These days molecular biologists are getting in on the fossil hunting fun, too. Thanks to the human genome project it was discovered that 8% of our genome is actually made up of dormant viruses. It is speculated that they were deactivated by our immune system, an ode to our evolutionary success. A cool power tool called a molecular clock has helped to estimate that some of these viruses are more than a hundred million years old. This has incredible implications for the role of viruses in our own long-term evolution, an idea that has only recently drawn appreciation. Our genomes may very well be considered junkyards for old virus parts.

With all the large-scale sequencing projects going on now, we are pretty much finding remnants of viruses everywhere we look. We are even beginning to reconstruct ancient viruses (don’t worry, it’s pretty safe) to earn a glimpse into long-term virus evolution. There is hope that elucidating patterns in the past may allow us to better detect emerging viruses and design more effective vaccines.

Fossils have no doubt taught us a great deal about ourselves. The depth that they allow us to travel back in time is worth careful consideration. From bones, to explosions, to DNA. Scientific fields as divergent as paleontology, astrophysics, and molecular evolution are all digging for fossils to learn about the history of our planet.

Come learn more about the emerging field of Paleovirology at Austin’s Pizza on Guadalupe this Thursday February 24 at 6:00pm. Science in the Pub presents Dr. Sara Sawyer from the University of Texas and Dr. Robert Gifford from Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, both evolutionary biologists that will be highlighting recent discoveries in paleovirology research.

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Memories for Tomorrow: The Past, the Future, and the Brain

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Dr. Alison Preston of UT's Center for Learning and Memory will be digging deep into how we create and process our memories. It will truly be a Science in the Pub you can't forget.