• Sam Nash

Lazarus Worms put Darwin’s Theory on Rocky Ground

It’s not the first time that creatures have thawed from melting glaciers with Lazarus-like abilities. Worms are remarkably resilient to harsh environments, surviving in anything from sub-artic conditions to super-heated ocean pockets next to deep water volcanic vents. Some can even withstand radiation, drying, low oxygen and starvation, often by voluntarily shutting down their biological functions until they are suspended in a form of stasis.

What is more extraordinary is that some species, such as the dbelloid rotifers, flourished for millions of years without the need for sex. These multicellular organisms clone themselves to reproduce, creating exact copies of the original without ever swapping DNA with another worm. You’d think with such a narrow gene pool, the species would be ill-equipped to navigate the changing landscape and environmental conditions over the past few millennia, but these microscopic worms just go on living and reproducing for years after thawing from the permafrost.

In terms of genetics, it could be said that the worms that Stas Malavin and his colleagues from the Soil Cryology Laboratory in Pushchino, Russia, revived from Siberian permafrost recently, were the very same ones living 35 million years ago. Even if these revelations take us one step closer to understanding how cryostasis works without fracturing the internal, albeit primitive organs inside, how do these invertebrates fit into Darwinian theories of evolution?

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

If all life on this planet is in a constant state of change, why do some species go on and adapt to form new branches of the evolutionary tree, while others steadfastly refuse to evolve further? You could hardly consider a tiny worm to be at the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder despite its incredible toughness.

How did they develop from unicellular lifeforms into robust multicellular ones without swapping DNA in the first place, and why did they halt their development? These are organisms that are exposed to a diverse range of conditions, yet remain exactly as they were millions of years ago. How did a collection of cells suddenly decide to cooperate and blend to form a multicellular creature?

There is strong evidence to suggest that the energy factories, or mitochondria, within each of our cells were once a type of bacterium that adapted in a symbiotic relationship with primitive lifeforms. This is a process known as endosymbiosis, first coined by Lynn Margulis in the 1960s. It is surmised, that it was this leap in efficient conversion of sugars into a useful form of energy that allowed multicellular life to evolve.

Lichen do something similar, combining a type of fungi with a plant, maximising the benefits of both. Portuguese Man O’War are actually a whole collection of specialised organisms, joining forces to become a drifting and deadly jelly fish colony in warm oceans. The unicellular slipper cell, or paramecium, swims around in fresh water gobbling up tiny green algae, not to digest, but to absorb the sugars they create from photosynthesis.

Man o war jelly fish
Man o war jelly fish

When you look at the remote possibilities that chance or trial and error could bring about these incredible examples of cooperation, the Theory of Evolution suddenly starts to look a bit ridiculous, especially when you factor in the chaotic nature of… well, nature. Coming back to the rotifer worms, how is it that over the course of 35 million years, they haven’t joined forces with another creature to develop into something bigger and better, or used their abilities to bud a new version of themselves as a mechanism to form arms and legs?

For a dyed in the wool science devotee, these unanswered questions are deeply disturbing. Have we finished our envelopment of other species into our bodies or is there a possibility of further endosymbiosis to achieve more spectacular abilities? Could we perhaps, one day, absorb bioluminescent zooplankton to make street lighting a future redundancy? I jest, of course, evolutionary biologists claim that humans evolved from apes, with the assumption that dominant and successful characteristics were what drove us to become what we are today. If that is in fact true, why are there still so many species of ape in existence, when they too could evolve alongside us?

Over the millennia, Man has also been subjected to the same harsh conditions as the rotifer worms. Humans migrated, others, such as the worms, hitched a ride to more hospitable environs, but many stay to wait out the storm. They are found in freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, and in moist terrestrial areas such as within moss, tree bark and the soil. If these rotifers can trigger a state of cryptobiosis at will, regardless of their habitat, could we ever develop similar capabilities too?

Could there once have been a biochemical pathway that allowed us to cross-breed with other species or integrate useful single celled organisms into our bodies to aid digestion or speed metabolism? If so, that would certainly shine a different light on the chimera-producing scientists creating man-monkey hybrids for research purposes. It would also bring new meaning to the ancient and inexplicable pictograms found in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where gods were depicted as giant men with animal, reptilian or bird-like heads.

Were these perhaps hints at the kinds of genetic combinations that were present in those mysterious times; men with skin as tough as crocodiles or sight as sharp as a hawk? Would these traits have become diluted over the thousands of years rather than sharpened through selective breeding?

For someone who was taught, and truly believed, that there could be no other explanation for life on earth than the Darwinian Theory, evolution raises more questions than it answers. For the scientist in me, that is troubling but for the creator side of me, it offers up a gigantic avenue of potential story lines and a wealth of material to plunder. You can always rely on science to conjure new mysteries to solve.

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