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University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have found revolutionary evidence that an evolutionary phenomenon at work in complex organisms is at play in their single-celled counterparts, too.
Species most often evolve through DNA mutations inherited by successive generations. A few decades ago, researchers began discovering that multicellular species can also evolve through epigenetics: traits originating from the inheritance of cellular proteins that control access to an organism's DNA, rather than genetic changes.
Proteins - Organism - Environment - Epigenetics - Resides
Because those proteins can respond to shifts in an organism's environment, epigenetics resides on the ever-thin line between nature and nurture. Evidence for it had emerged only in eukaryotes, the multicellular domain of life that comprises animals, plants and several other kingdoms.
But a series of experiments from Nebraska's Sophie Payne, Paul Blum and colleagues has shown that epigenetics can pass along extreme acid resistance in a species of archaea: microscopic, single-celled organisms that share features with both eukaryotes and bacteria.
Surprise - Organisms - Blum - Charles - Bessey
"The surprise is that it's in these relatively primitive organisms, which we know to be ancient," said Blum, Charles Bessey Professor of Biological Sciences at Nebraska. "We've been thinking about this as something (evolutionarily) new. But epigenetics is not a newcomer to the planet."
The team discovered the phenomenon in Sulfolobus solfataricus, a sulfur-eating species that thrives in the boiling, vinegar-acidic springs of Yellowstone National Park. By exposing the species to increasing levels of acidity over several years, the researchers evolved three strains that exhibited a resistance 178 times greater than that of their Yellowstone ancestors.
Strains - Resistance - Mutations - DNA - Mutations
One of those strains evolved the resistance despite no mutations in its DNA, while the other two underwent mutations in mutually exclusive genes that do not contribute to acid resistance. And when the team disrupted the proteins thought to control the expression of resistance-relevant genes—leaving the DNA itself untouched—that resistance abruptly disappeared in subsequent generations.
"We predicted that they'd be...
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