Friday, November 16, 2018

A Branch Previously Unknown

It's not every day that the 'Tree of Life' gets a makeover, but Canadian biology graduate student Yana Eglit discovered organisms which will necessitate changes. The best part of the story is that she discovered these organisms underfoot, quite literally- she scooped up dirt on a hiking trail. While Hemimastigotes have been known to science since the 19th Century, their true nature was unknown. I suspect that they were simply lumped into the paraphyletic group Protista and promptly forgotten. Luckily, Ms Eglit propagated her protists and had a colleague, Gordon Lax, conduct a DNA sequencing which was analyzed by another colleague, Laura Eme:

After waiting a few weeks for the sequencing to come in, we obtained our phylogenetic marker genes and enlisted the help of Laura Eme, an expert in eukaryote phylogenomics (and made some bets on which ‘supergroup’ our organisms would go into). Following weeks of extensive bioinformatic clean-up, we vividly remember when we saw our first phylogenomic tree of eukaryotes with ‘hemimastigotes’: which went… nowhere in particular. ‘Hemimastigotes’ did not fall within any previously-characterised major group of eukaryotes, representing a ‘supergroup’ of their own. No one won the bet.

I love this story- these young scientists made an Earth-changing discovery while on a routine hike in the woods, in a place familiar to them. This is a perfect account of people simply seeing the world differently, and taking steps to analyze a familiar place, only to find something which, while described a century ago, wasn't properly understood. Progress occurs in strange ways- technological advances are made, but often pure serendipity plays a role... kudos to Ms Eglit, her place in the pantheon of biology is secure, and I look forward to hearing from and about her for decades to come.


Smut Clyde said...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

That kid sure is enthusiastic about a lot of things, old chum.