Chapter 6. Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
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Bill McQuay and Christopher Joyce Acoustic biologists who have learned to tune their ears to the sounds of life know there's a lot more to animal communication than just, "Hey, here I am!" or "I need a mate." From insects to elephants to people, we animals all use sound to function and converse in social groups — especially when the environment is dark, or underwater or heavily forested. "We think that we really know what's going on out there," says Dartmouth College biologist Laurel Symes, who studies crickets. But there's a cacophony all around us, she says, that's full of information still to be deciphered. "We're getting this tiny slice of all of the sound in the world." Recently scientists have pushed the field of bioacoustics even further, to record whole environments, not just the animals that live there. Some call this "acoustic ecology" — listening to the rain, streams, wind through the trees. A deciduous forest sounds different from a pine forest, for example, and that soundscape changes seasonally. Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is especially interested in the ways all these sounds, which are essentially vibrations, have shaped the evolution of the human brain. "Vibration sensitivity is found in even the most primitive life forms," Horowitz says — even bacteria. "It's so critical to your environment, knowing that something else is moving near you, whether it's a predator or it's food. Everywhere you go there is vibration and it tells you something." © 2015 NPR
By Ann Gibbons From the moment in 2013 when paleoanthropologist Lee Berger posted a plea on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills,” some experts began grumbling that the excavation of a mysterious hominin in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa was more of a media circus than a serious scientific expedition. Daily blogs recorded the dangerous maneuvers of “underground astronauts” who squeezed through a long, narrow chute to drop 30 meters into a fossil-filled cavern, while Berger, who is based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, became the “voice from the cave” in radio interviews. When it came time to analyze the fossils, Berger put out a call for applications from “early career scientists” to study them at a workshop in Johannesburg in March 2014. Handing over much of the analysis of such potentially important specimens to inexperienced researchers didn’t inspire confidence among Berger’s colleagues either, though it did win him the nickname Mr. Paleodemocracy. Many thought the expedition “had more hype than substance,” paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London writes in a commentary accompanying the fossils’ official presentation this week in the journal eLIFE. But the substance has now been unveiled, and few dispute that the findings are impressive. In their report, Berger and his team describe 1550 fossils representing more than 15 ancient members of a strange new kind of hominin, which they named Homo naledi. (Naledi means “star” in the Sotho language spoken in the region of the cave.) © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Link ID: 21392 - Posted: 09.10.2015
By Steve Mirsky It's nice to know that the great man we celebrate in this special issue had a warm sense of humor. For example, in 1943 Albert Einstein received a letter from a junior high school student who mentioned that her math class was challenging. He wrote back, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.” Today we know that his sentiment could also have been directed at crows, which are better at math than those members of various congressional committees that deal with science who refuse to acknowledge that global temperatures keep getting higher. Studies show that crows can easily discriminate between a group of, say, three objects and another containing nine. They have more trouble telling apart groups that are almost the same size, but unlike the aforementioned committee members, at least they're trying. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA finds that the brain of a crow has nerve cells that specialize in determining numbers—a method quite similar to what goes on in our primate brain. Human and crow brains are substantially different in size and organization, but convergent evolution seems to have decided that this kind of neuron-controlled numeracy is a good system. (Crows are probably unaware of evolution, which is excusable. Some members of various congressional committees that deal with science pad their reactionary résumés by not accepting evolution, which is astonishing.) © 2015 Scientific American
By Emily Chung, Whadd'ya at? Ow ya goin'? If you were at a picnic with a bunch of Newfoundlanders or Australians, those are the greetings you might fling around. Similarly, scientists who eavesdrop on sperm whales – Moby Dick's species — have found they also have distinct "dialects." And a new study suggests like human dialects, they arise through cultural learning. "Cultural transmission seems key to the partitioning of sperm whales into… clans," the researchers wrote in a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications. Sperm whales live around the world, mainly in deeper waters far offshore. The solitary males live in colder areas, and roam in Canadian waters in areas where the ocean depth is more than 1000 metres, says Mauricio Cantor, the Dalhousie University PhD. student who led the new study with Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie biology professor. The females live in warmer, more southern waters, in loose family groups of around seven to 12 whales – sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and the occasional unrelated friend and their calves. Sometimes, they meet up with other families for gatherings of up to 200 whales, similar to human picnics or festivals. These can last from a few hours to a few days. The whales that gather in these groups, called clans, have distinct "dialects" of patterns of clicks called codas that are distinct from the clicks they use in echolocation when they're hunting for food. They use codas talk to each other when they surface between dives. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Erin Wayman Nose picking isn’t a mark of distinction among people — but it is among monkeys. For the first time, researchers have reported a wild capuchin monkey using a tool to pick its nose and teeth. The monkey was caught in the act last year by Michael Haslam of the University of Oxford. For about five minutes, an adult female bearded capuchin (Sapajus libidinosus) in northeastern Brazil repeatedly inserted a twig or stem into its nostril, usually inducing a sneeze. The monkey also rubbed sticks back and forth against the base of its teeth, probably to dislodge debris, Haslam and Oxford colleague Tiago Falótico report in the July Primates. After picking its nose or teeth, the monkey often licked the tool tip, perhaps to wipe the stick clean. Bearded capuchins are quite handy, brandishing rocks to crack open nuts (SN Online: 4/30/15) and sticks to retrieve insects from crevices or to collect honey. But until now, no one had seen a wild capuchin use a tool as a nasal probe or toothpick. M. Haslam and T. Falótico. Nasal probe and toothpick tool use by a wild female bearded capuchin (Sapajus libidinosus). Primates. Vol. 56, July 2015, p. 211. doi: 10.1007/s10329-015-0470-6. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
Link ID: 21382 - Posted: 09.08.2015
Bill McQuay The natural world is abuzz with the sound of animals communicating — crickets, birds, even grunting fish. But scientists learning to decode these sounds say the secret signals of African elephants — their deepest rumblings — are among the most intriguing calls any animal makes. Katy Payne, the same biologist who recognized song in the calls of humpback whales in the 1960s, went on to help create the Elephant Listening Project in the Central African Republic in the 1980s. At the time, Payne's team was living in shacks in a dense jungle inhabited by hundreds of rare forest elephants. That's where one of us — Bill McQuay — first encountered the roar of an elephant in 2002, while reporting a story for an NPR-National Geographic collaboration called Radio Expeditions. Here's how Bill remembers that day in Africa: I was walking through this rainforest to an observation platform built up in a tree — out of the reach of the elephants. I climbed up onto the platform, a somewhat treacherous exercise with all my recording gear. Then I set up my recording equipment, put on the headphones, and started listening. That first elephant roar sounded close. But I was so focused on the settings on my recorder that I didn't bother to look around. The second roar sounded a lot closer. I thought, this is so cool! What I didn't realize was, there was this huge bull elephant standing right underneath me — pointing his trunk up at me, just a few feet away. Apparently he was making a "dominance display." © 2015 NPR
Carl Zimmer You are what you eat, and so were your ancient ancestors. But figuring out what they actually dined on has been no easy task. There are no Pleistocene cookbooks to consult. Instead, scientists must sift through an assortment of clues, from the chemical traces in fossilized bones to the scratch marks on prehistoric digging sticks. Scientists have long recognized that the diets of our ancestors went through a profound shift with the addition of meat. But in the September issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers argue that another item added to the menu was just as important: carbohydrates, bane of today’s paleo diet enthusiasts. In fact, the scientists propose, by incorporating cooked starches into their diet, our ancestors were able to fuel the evolution of our oversize brains. Roughly seven million years ago, our ancestors split off from the apes. As far as scientists can tell, those so-called hominins ate a diet that included a lot of raw, fiber-rich plants. After several million years, hominins started eating meat. The oldest clues to this shift are 3.3-million-year-old stone tools and 3.4-million-year-old mammal bones scarred with cut marks. The evidence suggests that hominins began by scavenging meat and marrow from dead animals. At some point hominins began to cook meat, but exactly when they invented fire is a question that inspires a lot of debate. Humans were definitely making fires by 300,000 years ago, but some researchers claim to have found campfires dating back as far as 1.8 million years. Cooked meat provided increased protein, fat and energy, helping hominins grow and thrive. But Mark G. Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, and his colleagues argue that there was another important food sizzling on the ancient hearth: tubers and other starchy plants. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Alison Abbott The octopus genome offers clues to how cephalopods evolved intelligence to rival the craftiest vertebrates. With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome, described in Nature1 on 12 August, that helps to explain how a mere mollusc evolved into an otherworldly being. “It’s the first sequenced genome from something like an alien,” jokes neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who co-led the genetic analysis of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides). The work was carried out by researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. The scientists also investigated gene expression in twelve different types of octopus tissue. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved,” says neurobiologist Benny Hochner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, who has studied octopus neurophysiology for 20 years. Researchers want to understand how the cephalopods, a class of free-floating molluscs, produced a creature that is clever enough to navigate highly complex mazes and open jars filled with tasty crabs. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
Nell Greenfieldboyce Take a close look at a house cat's eyes and you'll see pupils that look like vertical slits. But a tiger has round pupils — like humans do. And the eyes of other animals, like goats and horses, have slits that are horizontal. Scientists have now done the first comprehensive study of these three kinds of pupils. The shape of the animal's pupil, it turns out, is closely related to the animal's size and whether it's a predator or prey. The pupil is the hole that lets light in, and it comes in lots of different shapes. "There are some weird ones out there," says Martin Banks, a vision scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Cuttlefish have pupils that look like the letter "W," and dolphins have pupils shaped like crescents. Some frogs have heart-shaped pupils, while geckos have pupils that look like pinholes arranged in a vertical line. Needless to say, scientists want to know why all these different shapes evolved. "It's been an active point of debate for quite some time," says Banks, "because it's something you obviously observe. It's the first thing you see about an animal — where their eye is located and what the pupil shape is." For their recent study, Banks and his colleagues decided to keep things simple. They looked at just land animals, and just three kinds of pupils. "We restricted ourselves to just pupils that are elongated or not," Banks explains. "So they're either vertical, horizontal or round." © 2015 NPR
// by Richard Farrell Bonobos have a capacity to do something human infants have been shown to do: use a single sound whose meaning varies based on context, a form of "flexible" communication previously thought specific to humans. The finding was made by researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Neuchatel, in a paper just published in the journal Peer J. The newly identified bonobo call is a short, high-pitched "peep," made with a closed mouth. The scientists studied the call's acoustic structure and observed that it did not change between what they termed "neutral" and "positive" circumstances (for example, between activities such as feeding or resting), suggesting that other bonobos receiving the call would need to weigh contextual information to discern its meaning. Human babies do something similarly flexible, using sounds called protophones -- different from highly specific sounds such as crying or laughter -- that are made independent of how they are feeling emotionally. The appearance of this capability in the first year of life is "a critical step in the development of vocal language and may have been a critical step in the evolution of human language," an earlier study on infant vocalization noted. The find challenges the idea that calls from primates such as bonobos -- which, along with chimpanzees, are our closest relatives -- are strictly matched with specific contexts and emotions, whether those sounds are territorial barks or shrieks of alarm. © 2015 Discovery Communications, LLC.
By Michael Balter Have you ever wondered why you say “The boy is playing Frisbee with his dog” instead of “The boy dog his is Frisbee playing with”? You may be trying to give your brain a break, according to a new study. An analysis of 37 widely varying tongues finds that, despite the apparent great differences among them, they share what might be a universal feature of human language: All of them have evolved to make communication as efficient as possible. Earth is a veritable Tower of Babel: Up to 7000 languages are still spoken across the globe, belonging to roughly 150 language families. And they vary widely in the way they put sentences together. For example, the three major building blocks of a sentence, subject (S), verb (V), and object (O), can come in three different orders. English and French are SVO languages, whereas German and Japanese are SOV languages; a much smaller number, such as Arabic and Hebrew, use the VSO order. (No well-documented languages start sentences or clauses with the object, although some linguists have jokingly suggested that Klingon might do so.) Yet despite these different ways of structuring sentences, previous studies of a limited number of languages have shown that they tend to limit the distance between words that depend on each other for their meaning. Such “dependency” is key if sentences are to make sense. For example, in the sentence “Jane threw out the trash,” the word “Jane” is dependent on “threw”—it modifies the verb by telling us who was doing the throwing, just as we need “trash” to know what was thrown, and “out” to know where the trash went. Although “threw” and “trash” are three words away from each other, we can still understand the sentence easily. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Andrea Alfano Forget the insult “fathead.” We may actually owe our extraordinary smarts to the fat in our brain. A study published in Neuron in February revealed that the variety of fat molecules found in the human neocortex, the brain region responsible for advanced cognitive functions such as language, evolved at an exceptionally fast rate after the human-ape split. The researchers analyzed the concentrations of 5,713 different lipids, or fat molecules and their derivatives, present in samples of brain, kidney and muscle tissues taken from humans, chimpanzees, macaques and mice. Lipids have a variety of critical functions in all cells, including their role as the primary component of a cell's membrane. They are particularly important in the brain because they enable electrical signal transmission among neurons. Yet until this study, it was unknown whether the lipids in the human brain differed significantly from lipids in other mammals. The team discovered that the levels of various lipids found in human brain samples, especially from the neocortex, stood out. Humans and chimps diverged from their common ancestor around the same time, according to much evolutionary evidence. Because the two species have had about the same amount of time to rack up changes to their lipid profiles, the investigators expected them to have roughly the same number of species-specific lipid concentrations, explains computational biologist and study leader Kasia Bozek of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Indeed, lipid changes in the cerebellum, a primitive part of the brain similar in all vertebrates, were comparable between humans and chimps. But the human neocortex has accumulated about three times more lipid changes than the chimpanzee cortex has since we split from our common ancestor. © 2015 Scientific American
Link ID: 21260 - Posted: 08.04.2015
Kill, Fido! Docile ants become aggressive guard dogs after a secret signal from their caterpillar overlord. The idea turns on its head the assumption that the two species exchange favours in an even-handed relationship. The caterpillars of the Japanese oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica) grow up wrapped inside leaves on oak trees. To protect themselves against predators like spiders and wasps, they attract ant bodyguards, Pristomyrmex punctatus, with an offering of sugar droplets. The relationships was thought to be a fair exchange of services in which both parties benefit. But Masaru Hojo from Kobe University in Japan noticed something peculiar: the caterpillars were always attended by the same ant individuals. “It also seemed that the ants never moved away or returned to their nests,” he says. They seemed to abandon searching for food, and were just standing around guarding the caterpillar. Intrigued, Hojo and his colleagues conducted lab experiments in which they allowed some ants to interact with the caterpillars and feed on the secretions, and kept others separate. Ants that ate the caterpillar’s secretions remained close to the caterpillar. They didn’t return to their nest. And whenever the caterpillar everted its tentacles – flipped them so they turned inside out – the ants moved around rapidly, acting aggressively. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Ewen Callaway Our ancestors were not a picky bunch. Overwhelming genetic evidence shows that Homo sapiens had sex with Neanderthals, Denisovans and other archaic relatives. Now researchers are using large genomics studies to unravel the decidedly mixed contributions that these ancient romps made to human biology — from the ability of H. sapiens to cope with environments outside Africa, to the tendency of modern humans to get asthma, skin diseases and maybe even depression. The proportion of the human genome that comes from archaic relatives is small. The genomes of most Europeans and Asians are 2–4% Neanderthal1, with Denisovan DNA making up about 5% of the genomes of Melanesians2 and Aboriginal Australians3. DNA slivers from other distant relatives probably pepper a variety of human genomes4. But these sequences may have had an outsize effect on human biology. In some cases, they are very different from the corresponding H. sapiens DNA, notes population geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts — which makes it more likely that they could introduce useful traits. “Even though it’s only a couple or a few per cent of ancestry, that ancestry was sufficiently distant that it punched above its weight,” he says. Last year, Reich co-led one of two teams that catalogued the Neanderthal DNA living on in modern-day humans5, 6. The studies hinted that Neanderthal versions of some genes may have helped Eurasians to reduce heat loss or grow thicker hair. But the evidence that these genes were beneficial was fairly weak. To get a better handle on how Neanderthal DNA shapes human biology, Corinne Simonti and Tony Capra, evolutionary geneticists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, turned to genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that had already compared thousands of DNA variants in people with and without a certain disease or condition. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
Link ID: 21240 - Posted: 07.30.2015
Alison Abbott Neuroscientists have identified an area of the brain that might give the human mind its unique abilities, including language. The area lit up in human, but not monkey, brains when they were presented with different types of abstract information. The idea that integrating abstract information drives many of the human brain's unique abilities has been around for decades. But a paper published1 in Current Biology, which directly compares activity in human and macaque monkey brains as they listen to simple auditory patterns, provides the first physical evidence that a specific area for such integration may exist in humans. Other studies that compare monkeys and humans have revealed differences in the brain’s anatomy, for example, but not differences that could explain where humans’ abstract abilities come from, say neuroscientists. “This gives us a powerful clue about what is special about our minds,” says psychologist Gary Marcus at New York University. “Nothing is more important than understanding how we got to be how we are.” A team of researchers headed by Stanislas Dehaene at the INSERM Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris, looked at changing patterns of activation in the brain as untrained monkeys and human adults listened to a simple sequence of tones, for example three identical tones followed by a different tone (like the famous four-note opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony: da-da-da-DAH). The researchers played several different sequences with this structure — known as AAAB — and other sequences to the subjects while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The fMRI technique picks up changes in blood flow in the brain that correlate with regional brain activity. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
THERE’S more to semen than sperm. In many animals, seminal fluid alters both the bodies and sometimes even the behaviour of females. Human semen, too, triggers changes in the uterus, and might have wider effects on women, aimed at just one goal. “It’s all about maximising the chances of the male reproducing,” says Sarah Robertson of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The effects are most striking in fruit flies: seminal fluid can make the females eat more, lay more eggs and be less receptive to other males. Now a team led by Tracey Chapman at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, has found that male fruit flies selectively alter the chemical make-up of their seminal fluid. In the presence of rivals, the males produce more seminal proteins. “It came as a real surprise,” says Chapman. “It’s a sophisticated response to the social and sexual situation.” Some of their findings were presented at the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution conference in Vienna, Austria, last week, including their discovery that one of these proteins is a “master regulator” of genes. Females exposed to it show a wide range of changes in gene expression. Chapman thinks this kind of seminal signalling is widespread in the animal world. The semen of people, pigs and mice affects the female reproductive tract, and the question is whether it can also produce behavioural responses in female mammals similar to those seen in fruit flies. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Ewen Callaway A mysterious group of humans crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia into the Americas thousands of years ago, genetic analyses reveal. Modern-day signatures of this ‘ghost population’ survive in people who live deep in the Brazilian Amazon, but the two research teams who have made the discovery have different ideas about when and how these migrants reached the Americas1, 2. "This is an unexpected finding," says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in either study. "It’s honestly one of the most exciting results we’ve seen in a while." North and South America were the last continents that humans settled. Previous studies of DNA from modern and ancient Native Americans suggest that the trek was made at least 15,000 years ago (although the timing is not clear-cut) by a single group dubbed the ‘First Americans’, who crossed the Bering land bridge linking Asia and North America. “The simplest hypothesis would be that a single population penetrated the ice sheets and gave rise to most of the Americans,” says David Reich, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2012, his team found evidence for a single founding migration in the genomes from members of 52 Native American groups3. So Reich was flabbergasted when a colleague called Pontus Skoglund mentioned during a conference last year that he had found signs of a second ancient migration to the Americas lurking in the DNA of contemporary Native Amazonians. Reich wasted no time in verifying the discovery. “During the session afterward, he passed his laptop over the crowd, and he had corroborated the results,” says Skoglund, who is now a researcher in Reich’s lab. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 21201 - Posted: 07.22.2015
Carl Zimmer An ant colony is an insect fortress: When enemies invade, soldier ants quickly detect the incursion and rip their foes apart with their oversize mandibles. But some invaders manage to slip in with ease, none more mystifyingly than the ant nest beetle. Adult beetles stride into an ant colony in search of a mate, without being harassed. They lay eggs, from which larva hatch. As far as scientists can tell, workers feed the young beetles as if they were ants. When the beetles grow into adults, the ants swarm around them, grooming their bodies. In exchange for this hospitality, the beetles sink their jaws into ant larvae and freshly moulted adults in order to drink their body fluids. “They’re like vampire beetles wandering in the ant nests,” said Andrea Di Giulio, an entomologist at Roma Tre University in Rome. Dr. Di Giulio and his colleagues have now uncovered a remarkable trick that the beetles use to fool their hosts. It turns out they can perform uncanny impressions, mimicking a range of ant calls. Dr. Di Giulio and his colleagues study a species of ant nest beetle called Paussus favieri, which lives in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where it infiltrates the nests of Moroccan ants, known as Pheidole pallidula. Like many ant species, Pheidole pallidula makes noises by rubbing its legs against ridges on its body. The meanings of these signals vary from species to species; leaf-cutting ants summon bodyguards for the march back to the nest; in other species, a queen trills to her workers to attend to her. Scientists have found that Pheidole pallidula ants make three distinct sounds, each produced by a different caste: soldiers, workers and the queen. © 2015 The New York Times Company
by Stephen Buchmann Flowers, bugs and bees: Stephen Buchmann wanted to study them all when he was a kid. "I never grew out of my bug-and-dinosaur phase," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "You know, since about the third grade, I decided I wanted to chase insects, especially bees." These days, he's living that dream. As a pollination ecologist, he's now taking a particular interest in how flowers attract insects. In his new book, The Reason for Flowers, he looks at more than just the biology of flowers — he dives into the ways they've laid down roots in human history and culture, too. On the real 'reason for flowers' The reason for flowers is actually one word: sex. So, flowers are literally living scented billboards that are advertising for sexual favors, whether those are from bees, flies, beetles, butterflies or us, because quite frankly most of the flowers in the world have gotten us to do their bidding. But that's only the first stage because flowers, if they're lucky, turn into fruits, and those fruits and seeds feed the world. On the raucous secret lives of beetles One of my favorite memories is roaming the Napa foothills as a UC Davis grad student. And I would go to the wineries, of course, and in between I would find western spice bush, which is this marvelous flower that kind of smells like a blend between a cabernet and rotten fruit. And when you find those flowers and open them up, you discover literally dozens of beetles in there, mating, defecating, pollinating — having a grand time. © 2015 NPR
Tina Hesman Saey The Earth has rhythm. Every 24 hours, the planet pirouettes on its axis, bathing its surface alternately in sunlight and darkness. Organisms from algae to people have evolved to keep time with the planet’s light/dark beat. They do so using the world’s most important timekeepers: daily, or circadian, clocks that allow organisms to schedule their days so as not to be caught off guard by sunrise and sunset. A master clock in the human brain appears to synchronize sleep and wake with light. But there are more. Circadian clocks tick in nearly every cell in the body. “There’s a clock in the liver. There’s a clock in the adipose [fat] tissue. There’s a clock in the spleen,” says Barbara Helm, a chronobiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Those clocks set sleep patterns and meal times. They govern the flow of hormones and regulate the body’s response to sugar and many other important biological processes (SN: 4/10/10, p. 22). Having timekeepers offers such an evolutionary advantage that species have developed them again and again throughout history, many scientists say. But as common and important as circadian clocks have become, exactly why such timepieces arose in the first place has been a deep and abiding mystery. Many scientists favor the view that multiple organisms independently evolved their own circadian clocks, each reinventing its own wheel. Creatures probably did this to protect their fragile DNA from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. But a small group of researchers think otherwise. They say there had to be one mother clock from which all others came. That clock evolved to shield the cell from oxygen damage or perhaps provide other, unknown advantages. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015