Much of what living cells do is carried out by “molecular machines” – physical complexes of specialized proteins working together to carry out some biological function. How the minute steps of evolution produced these constructions has long puzzled scientists, and provided a favorite target for creationists.
In a study published early online on January 8, in Nature, a team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Oregon demonstrate how just a few small, high-probability mutations increased the complexity of a molecular machine more than 800 million years ago. By biochemically resurrecting ancient genes and testing their functions in modern organisms, the researchers showed that a new component was incorporated into the machine due to selective losses of function rather than the sudden appearance of new capabilities.
“Our strategy was to use ‘molecular time travel’ to reconstruct and experimentally characterize all the proteins in this molecular machine just before and after it increased in complexity,” said the study’s senior author Joe Thornton, PhD, professor of human genetics and evolution & ecology at the University of Chicago, professor of biology at the University of Oregon, and an Early Career Scientist of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“By reconstructing the machine’s components as they existed in the deep past,” Thornton said, “we were able to establish exactly how each protein’s function changed over time and identify the specific genetic mutations that caused the machine to become more elaborate.”