Luca be a lady

The Herald on Sunday - - SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY -

HUE and Cry never stopped look­ing for Linda, just as as­tro-bi­ol­o­gists never stopped look­ing for Luca – the last uni­ver­sal com­mon an­ces­tor and the sin­gle source of all life on Earth.

The irony is that Luca was al­ways hid­ing in plain sight – from the birds in the sky to the fun­gus in the fields and the fish in the sea. Ev­ery­thing that has ever ex­isted orig­i­nates from this sin­gle mi­crobe which ar­rived on a young Earth around four bil­lion years ago. I use the term “ar­rived” with trep­i­da­tion as there are many com­pet­ing the­o­ries on Luca’s ori­gins – some mar­vel­lous, some mad – but it’s the rather beau­ti­ful vi­sion of comets rid­dled with bac­te­ria seed­ing the uni­verse through plan­e­tary im­pact that has gained most trac­tion in re­cent years, il­lus­trated above.

So Luca, Earth’s true Eve, was quite pos­si­bly an alien, al­beit a very tiny one. Now, a sur­pris­ingly spe­cific ge­netic por­trait of this great granny of all things has been gen­er­ated by evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists at the Hein­rich Heine Univer­sity in Düs­sel­dorf. Decades of in­ten­sive gene re­search on mi­crobes has now shed con­sid­er­able light on the mys­tery of how life first emerged on the planet.

It seems Luca thrived in in­tensely hot deep sea vents on the magma-drenched, ce­les­tial baby Earth. This or­gan­ism was un­like any­thing we’ve ever seen, ba­si­cally a con­glom­er­a­tion of tiny cells that spent hun­dreds of mil­lions of years freely ex­chang­ing ge­netic ma­te­rial through some early form of os­mo­sis.

It had no gen­der and, most in­ter­est­ingly, was seem­ingly im­mor­tal. It was life but cer­tainly not as we know it. Death it­self did not ex­ist un­til Luca ef­fec­tively com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter a bil­lion years of celibacy and in­vented sex.

Why this eter­nal or­gan­ism’s ge­net­ics changed so sud­denly to pave the way for gen­der and pro­cre­ation as a way of ex­chang­ing ge­netic in­for­ma­tion is still a mys­tery. Philoso­phers might sug­gest Luca sac­ri­ficed im­mor­tal­ity to evolve a con­scious­ness so it could un­der­stand it­self. In short, cre­ate Per­haps Luca is ac­tu­ally still the one true ex­is­tence on this planet, more alive than ever before, now look­ing through the eyes of ev­ery­thing it birthed.

And if that’s true, some­one tell Pat Kane to call off the search for Linda. Je suis Linda. You are Linda. Pat him­self is Linda. We are all Linda. But her real name is Luca.

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