I have previously shared some evidence for the front-loading of mitochondria, along with an emerging picture where symbiogenesis is merged with front-loading. Now there is yet some more evidence in support of the plausibility of front-loading mitochondria. Those who follow this blog, or have read The Design Matrix, will note how seamlessly this all fits in with my hypothesis of life’s design:
But new research comparing mitochondria, which provide energy to animal cells, with their bacterial relatives, shows that the necessary pieces for one particular cellular machine — exactly the sort of structure that’s supposed to prove intelligent design — were lying around long ago. It was simply a matter of time before they came together into a more complex entity.
Mitochondria are descended from free-living bacteria, which several billion years ago were swallowed by complex cells. The mitochondria soon became central to the cells’ function.
Mitochondria couldn’t have lasted in their new home without the help of a protein machine called TIM23, which delivers other proteins harvested from the cell’s body. Bacteria don’t possess TIM23, suggesting that it evolved in mitochondria. This seems to pose a cellular chicken-and-egg question: How could protein transport evolve when it was necessary to survive in the first place?
When they analyzed the genomes of proteobacteria, the family that spawned the ancestors of mitochondria, Lithgow’s team found two of the protein parts used in mitochondria to make TIM23.
The parts are located on bacterial cell membranes, making them ideally positioned for TIM23’s eventual protein-delivering role. Only one other part, a molecule called LivH, would make a rudimentary protein-transporting machine — and LivH is commonly found in proteobacteria.
The process by which parts accumulate until they’re ready to snap together is called preadaptation. It’s a form of “neutral evolution,” in which the buildup of the parts provides no immediate advantage or disadvantage. Neutral evolution falls outside the descriptions of Charles Darwin. But once the pieces gather, mutation and natural selection can take care of the rest, ultimately resulting in the now-complex form of TIM23.
“It hasn’t been possible up until this point to trace any of those proteins back to a bacterial ancestor,” said Dalhousie University cell biologist Michael Gray, one of the researchers who originally described the origins of mitochondria, but was not involved in the new study. “These three proteins don’t perform precisely the same function in proteobacteria, but with a simple mutation could be transformed into a simple protein transport machine that could start the whole thing off.”
“You look at cellular machines and say, why on earth would biology do anything like this? It’s too bizarre,” he said. “But when you think about it in a neutral evolutionary fashion, in which these machineries emerge before there’s a need for them, then it makes sense.”
As I noted before, “The hypothesis of front-loading evolution would thus predict that significant transitions in evolution would depend on preadaptation.”