October 20, 2011 | 10
Sitting below the swirling leaves and darkening skies of New York today I realized that yet again our planet is roaring up on perihelion at 30 kilometers a second. This means that in about three weeks those of us in the United States will be shifting our clocks back an hour (after due reverence for the hallowed gorging on mass-produced sugar that has, believe it or not, pushed daylight savings a week into the future these past few years). The prospect of darker afternoons reminded me of a post from the Life, Unbounded archives back in January that I’ve put below.
Looking at this piece with hindsight I think that it suggests looking to see just how fast the biological clock can run, could it adjust to a 12 hour day? I’m sure others far more knowledgeable can fill in the blanks, but the idea of probing Earth’s dynamical history through genetics is intriguing.
As those of us in the northern hemisphere of this small rocky planet contend with the winter nights and days it can feel like our internal clocks get a little out of whack. However, we and many other organisms actually have an extraordinarily robust built in timing mechanism that carries us through a roughly 24 hour cycle. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated C. Elegans do it. The circadian rhythm is something that may be a global property of terrestrial life. Regardless of sunlight then living things tend to operate on a daily routine, from rest to activity, and from high to low metabolic activity.
The exact biochemical origins of this internal clock have been somewhat elusive. In last week’s Nature two new works by O’Neill et al. shed some more light on the subject. A possibility has been that a transcription/translation feedback loop governing expression of certain ‘clock’ genes played a role in setting the 24 hour timer in organisms. O’Neill and colleagues seem to have found good evidence that there are additional, possibly superior, ‘time-keeping’ processes at play. In essence these are chemical ‘oscillators’ that behave like a well-tuned pendulum. Intriguingly this type of mechanism was already known to operate in the ancient cyano-bacteria. In tandem then perhaps both the purely chemical and gene mechanisms act like a self-correcting clock, keeping life to a consistent (roughly) 24 hour timetable. The genetic coding for the chemical clock seems likely to be shared amongst organisms like ourselves and ancient bacteria.
This is all very interesting. However, it also raises a number of questions that I’ve not seen discussed in detail in these or related experiments. 24 hours is the rotation period of the modern Earth. The Earth-Moon system has been in constant dynamical evolution since the formation of the Moon about 4.53 billion years ago following a massive proto-planet collision. At present the gravitational tides due to the Moon are dissipating energy at a rate of a few Terawatts and slowing the Earth’s rotation by about a couple of milliseconds a century. Other variations, like changing ice-caps, solar tides, even tectonic shifts tend to obscure this slowdown on short timescales but over millions of years there is little doubt that the Earth’s spin has been slowing. At the same time angular momentum conservation means that the Moon is receding from us at a few centimeters a year – a fact confirmed by laser ranging.
The upshot is that it’s quite possible that 4 billion years ago the Earth’s day-length was only 12 hours. Geological evidence is scarce to non-existent that far back, but studies of material deposited on what were once tidal shorelines indicate that around 600 million years ago the day length was certainly more like 22 hours, and the slowdown rate should have been more extreme in the further past. So the intriguing question to ask is how the biochemical clocks, be they the genetic or chemical variety, adjust over the millenia to that shift? Or, to be provocative, is there some way we could use our understanding of the evolution of these mechanisms to independently test the physical changes to Earth rotation over hundreds of millions to billions of years?
Celestial mechanics probed by paleogenetics? That sure sounds like fun.