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A New Development in Synthetic Biology

2014-06-14

Over the past few years, it has become more and more clear that all organisms that have nervous systems share the same neurotransmitters for many actions.

For example, a researcher recently reported that administration of serotonin to crayfish induces behavior that can easily be interpreted as anxiety-related: they spend less time exploring lighted areas and preferred to stay in the dark.  On the other hand, administration of a benzodiazepine (a family of human tranquilizers) calms the crayfish.  The original source of anxiety in the crayfish was administration of a mild electric shock, which also makes people a little nervous.

The finding that crayfish and humans (as well as many animals in between) share the same neurotransmitters is a truly profound one and indicates that basic neural mechanisms have been preserved throughout all of evolution.

This has implications that transcend those of shared drug effects.  Consider the fact that the popular research worm, C. elegans, can be cut up into many pieces and will survive.  The pieces will each grow into another complete worm.  What is more, each new worm will remember things that the original single worm had been taught.  This implies that memory is stored in a fixed chemical form in the brain.

The apparent form of this fixed memory is methylation of specific locations in an individual cell’s DNA.  It is unknown how many individual ‘bits’ of information can be stored in an individual cell, or which particular cell (possibly the astrocyte) is responsible for storage.

The ability to retain memory in such a compact form suggests that the brain is capable of remembering an astronomical variety of things in the same way that a computer starts with bits and bytes, and eventually constructs any needed form of memory, from a photograph to the computer instructions to run a program.

It is straightforward now to state that all organisms are related by common descent, and as research continues, more and more areas of commonality will appear.

On a lighter note, another researcher reports that rats can be shown to feel regret.

 

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