Chapter 29 : In Pursuit of Billion-Year-Old Rosetta Stones

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As Charles Darwin has taught us, evolution happens through natural selection. Small things, which in any given instance might not appear significant, can grow to have great importance when the environment changes. Bacteria could be used to clean up the messes humans made of their environment if the conditions were right for them to grow. Microorganisms are amazing. They invented the metabolic machinery that sustains all life today. Indeed, the cellular compartments where energy is made in the human body and plants are nothing more than the remnants of ancient bacteria that were engulfed by and entered into symbioses with other cells long ago. But the vast majority of bacteria play important roles in sustaining both human health and the health of our planet. Conventionally, when structurally complex organic molecules are identified from any given sample, they are interpreted as biomarkers of cyanobacteria—the microorganisms that invented oxygenic photosynthesis, the conversion of water to oxygen in sunlight—and hence, they are assumed to be biomarkers of oxygenic photosynthesis itself. The remaining challenge will be to identify new biomarkers to help constrain the timing of major metabolic breakthroughs, such as oxygenic photosynthesis, and shed light on how these breakthroughs came to be. In anticipation of the continued appearance of new clues, the development of increasingly powerful technologies, and the aid of talented colleagues, the author has no doubt that the pursuit of the molecular equivalents of billion-year-old Rosetta Stones will provide enough excitement to last my lifetime.

Citation: Newman D. 2012. In Pursuit of Billion-Year-Old Rosetta Stones, p 209-215. In Kolter R, Maloy S (ed), Microbes and Evolution. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818470.ch29
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