Monday, July 12, 2010

Early Life on Earth: a Moroccan makes a historic discovery

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
A week ago, Nature (the premiere science journal) published a paper to which it devoted its cover page. Probably because the main team of the discovery was from France, the newspapers here in France (where I am spending a few weeks on various types of work) echoed it with front-page stories and interviews of the lead author, the Moroccan Abderrazak El-Albani. I have not searched the blogosphere and other media outlets thoroughly, but I have had the distinct impression that the discovery was not given its dues, either because it was not deeply appreciated by everyone or because it was not made in the "usual places" (US-UK centers of high-level research).
What is this discovery that I am calling "historic" and that everyone should have reported and commented on much more largely? Quite simply, El-Albani and his collaborators found hundreds of multi-cellular life fossils dating back to 2.1 billion years, while the earliest such complex life form had previously been only 670 million years old. Unicellular life forms (and thus the earliest appearance of life per se) dates back to about 3.8 billion years ago, but more complex multi-cellular organisms had never been found from such old epochs. As Le Monde wrote: "a new history of life -- biology textbooks would have to be rewritten..."
Why is it such a surprising discovery? First, this defies essentially what the whole scientific community had come to believe, though this is not a strong argument at all -- paradigms change and the scientific community has been known to go wrong on major issues. But more specifically, because the "molecular clock", which measures the timescales for mutations and thus can construct phylogenetic trees of life, would have to be seriously reworked. Moreover, as some skeptical observers have pointed out, 2.1 billion years ago Earth's atmosphere was very toxic and had very little oxygen (so important for life's energy generation to proceed). Other unconvinced scientists stress that these fossils (numbering close to 250 specimens, some up to 12 centimeters long) could, instead of real multi-cellular organisms, be mere stacks of simple unicellular life forms. But if, as the discoverers insist (they exhibit a suite of technical tests, including x-ray microtomography of the fossils showing complex internal structures), the fossils are really multi-cellular, then serious questions arise: what happened to these organisms later? did they die out? did life restart independently elsewhere on earth? why the huge 1.5 billion-year gap before the later life explosion? etc.

It is interesting that this discovery was made in Gabon (West Africa), in a region that had been known for its geological and mineral -- but not biological -- richness. It is also noteworthy that the main discoverer is a Moroccan young researcher, who went to France for graduate studies in 1990 and got his doctorate in Geology in 1995; he is currently a CNRS fellow (French national research institution), and with his colleague Paul Sardini and his Gabonese student Frantz Ossa Ossa made this historic discovery. I should also stress the fact that the team brought in the expertise of some 20 specialists from various fields (paleontology, biology, chemistry, etc.) representing 17 institutions from 6 countries (France, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany, Belgium). It is also worth noting that, unfortunately, like Abdus Salam and Ahmed Zewail (the only two Muslim Nobel Prize winners in the sciences), El-Albani did his undergraduate studies in his home country, but his Ph. D. and research in the west. Am I putting El-Albani in the same league as those two great scientists? If this discovery is confirmed, the Nobel Prize could be a real possibility, but that's a big IF..


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Take my words Salman, and take it clearly...NO Nobel Prize for El-Albani, and I mean a BIG NO. And you know exactly why. You should not remain in any sort of confusion about Nobel Prize. Clear your mind.

emre said...

I read about it from a week ago.

It never occurred to me to check who the scientists were; I was so excited about the discovery! Now that you've pointed it out, I still don't care. Science is science, regardless of who does it. If it give Muslim scientists a morale boost, so be it.

Ali said...

I've read about this discovery elsewhere.

Now, do these fossil specimens qualify for the "pre-Cambrian rabbit"? Was it Haldane who said that? In my mind it may, unless life is proven to have originated twice or more than once.

The discovery itself has the full potential of making headlines for ages. But it did not make huge headlines. The most important reason is because of the jolt it brings to the current dogma of evolution.

If this research can be further developed, then yes, El-Albani is a candidate for the Nobel Prize. The discovery puts him in that direction, but he needs to work more to get it. Whether he will get it or not is another problem.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Dear Dr. M. Akbar Hussain,

First, it wasn't Salman who wrote any of that, it was me (Nidhal), so I have to answer for my words and deeds...

Second, I really don't understand why you voice a "BIG NO" to the idea of a Nobel Prize for that discovery, IF (big if, I said) it gets confirmed (and I did mention all the counter arguments). Please explain your opposition.

Thirdly, I only mentioned the Nobel Prize (at the very end of my piece) knowing that the idea had not been raised by anybody else (so it's not a big prospect) because I wanted to underscore the importance of the discovery (again, assuming its validity) and because I was talking about Muslims achieving important findings when they do their research in the west. I wasn't being biased or chauvinistic or anything, was I?

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Whether or not his findings get confirmed, there is nothing for El-Albani as far as the question of the prospect of a Noble Prize is concerned. Secondly, if these findings put any of the holy aspects of Darwinian Evolution to question, you will find these nowhere but the bin.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Dr. Hussain,

I'm really sorry, but I just don't understand your reply. Who said anything about this discovery putting Darwinian Evolution to question??

Now, let's drop the Nobel idea since it was just a last thought in my original piece, and I don't want it to cloud the issues; I still believe this is an important development/discovery, especially if it gets confirmed (and there are ways to confirm or refute this), but judgments of importance are often subjective...

Dr. Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

I am not contradicting any of your thoughts. I am just expressing my immense excitement about this discovery mixed with my worst fear that this milestone finding would not get enough, if any, appreciation like Noble Prize provided the source and mind behind it.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Just to add...anyone who has read evolution and the history of life on Earth would understand the titanic meaning of this 2.1 billion years figure.

Salman Hameed said...

"Just to add...anyone who has read evolution and the history of life on Earth would understand the titanic meaning of this 2.1 billion years figure."

Yes, that it's possible that multicellular organisms may have developed earlier on - with a slightly faster pace for evolution than previously thought. The pace of evolution has been a subject of debate for decades (example, see Gould's Punctuated Equilibrium), and this discovery will also contribute to this issue. It is a very cool result, but I don't see what this has to do with challenging evolution... (and if there is a result that challenges evolution - say a rabbit fossil in a 2 billion year old strata - that will be quite fascinating. But just like any other new results, it will have to pass through other tests and if true, will probably be regarded as a very important discovery).

Following Nidhal, I will also let go of responding to comments about Nobel prizes - these are distracting to the topic at hand.

Ali said...

"and if there is a result that challenges evolution - say a rabbit fossil in a 2 billion year old strata - that will be quite fascinating."

Now, as I said earlier, does this discovery not suffice as a pre-Cambrian rabbit?

Salman Hameed said...

"Now, as I said earlier, does this discovery not suffice as a pre-Cambrian rabbit?"

Probably not. We are still talking about relatively simple lifeforms - and as far as I understand the issue - it makes the case that complex life may have developed slower than we had thought earlier (i.e. there were already multi-cellular organisms around by the time we see the diversity increase in the Cambrian era). Of course, if this result holds, people will be looking for other multicellular organisms between 2.1 billion and the Cambrian age. We can safely say, that we are still talking about species changing - i.e. evolution :)