Category: Science

A collective narcissism

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Credit: (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

“Sorry Virginia, U.S. History Isn’t All About You!”

As the United States celebrates its founding on July 4, new research on “collective narcissism” suggests many Americans have hugely exaggerated notions about how much their home states helped to write the nation’s narrative.

New research on collective narcissism suggests that residents of many American states, including Texas, have an inflated sense of their home state’s role in U.S. history.

newswise-fullscreen Sorry Virginia, U.S. History Isn’t All About You
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Heat map of residents’ ratings of their state’s contributions to U.S. history. Darker colors and higher percentages represent a larger estimated contribution to U.S.

“Our study shows a massive narcissistic bias in the way that people from the United States remember the contributions of their home states to U.S. history,” said Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and senior author of the study.

The study, published June 24 in the journal Psychological Science, is based on a national survey of nearly 4,000 U.S residents, including about 50-60 respondents from each of the nation’s 50 states.

Asked to estimate their home state’s contribution to U.S. history, participants routinely gave their home state higher scores than those provided by non-residents of the state.

“As we originally hypothesized, the original 13 colonies, Texas and California showed high levels of narcissism, but there were also some surprises,” said Adam Putnam, the study’s first author and assistant professor of psychology at Furman University in South Carolina. “For example, people from Kansas and Wyoming thought much more of their state than nonresidents.”

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Collective narcissism — a phenomenon in which individuals show excessively high regard for their own group — has been studied extensively in smaller social circles, such as workplaces and communities. Psychologists have explored the idea that people over-claim responsibility for shared tasks for a long time, but this study is among the first to research its effects among huge virtual groups of loosely connected individuals scattered across entire states.

While it is difficult for anyone to accurately estimate an individual state’s contribution to the nation’s history, it is mathematically reasonable to expect the sum total of individual state contributions to add up to a figure in the vicinity of 100 percent.

Instead, the average percentage contributions estimated by residents of each state in this study added up to a staggering 907 percent, more than nine times higher than logic suggests.

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Roediger grew up in Virginia and was not surprised that his home state was on the high end of the continuum, claiming responsibility for 41 percent of the nation’s history.

“We would study U.S. history one year, then Virginia history the next. Many of the events are the same: Jamestown, the Revolution, four of the first five presidents being from Virginia, all the Civil War battles,” he recalls.

When people in other states were asked about Virginia’s percentage contribution to U.S. history, they also gave a high number: 24 percent.

In an effort to see if state narcissism could be reduced by exposure to the realities of U.S. history, researchers divided the sample into two groups, requiring half to take a quiz designed to remind them of the true breadth of U.S. history before they answered the relevant question. The other half answered the question first, before they took the quiz. However, placement of the question about how much the person’s state contributed did not matter. The average across the 50 states was 18.1 percent whether the question was posed first or was placed last.

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“The responses are even more amazing because we explicitly tell people in the question that there are 50 states and the total contribution of all states should equal 100 percent — even with that reminder Americans give really high responses,” Putnam said. “Being reminded about the scope of U.S. history before making the estimate doesn’t seem to lower the responses.

Putnam, who earned a doctorate in psychology from Washington University in 2015, has worked with Roediger on other studies of collective narcissism, including a just-published paper that applies the same methodology to 35 nations around the globe.

That study, which found that residents of Malaysia considered themselves responsible for 39 percent of world history, has important implications for how residents of these countries view one another and interact on the world stage.

Roediger and Putnam offer several explanations for the skewed perceptions uncovered in the study of collective narcissism among residents of American states.

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State of the union’s perception

Most humble states, according to the Narcissism Index:
1. Washington. Less than 1 percent
(Tie) 2. Colorado. 1 percent
Iowa
Kentucky
Mississippi
6. Arizona. 2 percent
(T) 7. Alabama. 3 percent
Maine
Texas
Utah
(T) 11. Missouri, with 6 others. 4 percent

Most immodest states:
(T) 1. Delaware, Virginia. 18 percent
3. Georgia. 15 percent
(T) 4. Kansas. 12 percent
Massachusetts
Wyoming
(T) 7. Idaho. 11 percent
Louisiana
New Jersey
(T) 10. Rhode Island, Hawaii. 10 percent

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For starters, people know a lot more about their home state than other states: they study state history in school, visit museums and so on. All of this information comes to mind quickly and easily compared to information about other states (a phenomenon known as the availability heuristic).

A second factor is that social psychology research has clearly shown that people like to associate with successful groups and think of themselves as being slightly above-average on a variety of positive traits.

Finally, people might not be particularly good at making quantitative estimates about small numbers.

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“The most important take away from this research is that people may appear to be egocentric or narcissistic about their own groups, but there isn’t necessarily anything malicious or evil about it — it is just the way we view the world,” Putnam said. “There is certainly concern about tribalism in today’s culture, so this project is a nice reminder to try and think about how people from different backgrounds see things.”

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Bullying children with autism

Photo by Quin Stevenson

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BINGHAMTON, NY – Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to experience bullying than children without ASD and this bullying gets worse with age, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Hannah Morton, a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Binghamton University, aimed to conceptualize bullying in children with ASD in order to specifically identify different bullying and behavior types. Her research also emphasizes the need to establish better definitions of bullying behaviors.

“This research is important because it contributes to our understanding of how bullying is nuanced,” said Morton. “This variability means it is crucial to establish a definition for bullying and have standard assessments to know when and what types of bullying are occurring.”

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Morton, along with Binghamton psychologists Jennifer Gillis, Richard Mattson and Raymond Romanczyk, focused this study on teachers and parents of children with ASD, and community members without an ASD child. Participants took a survey containing 80 scenarios of interactions between two school-aged children. The scenarios varied from children ages four to fifteen. Sixty-four of these scenarios contained a type of bullying behavior (i.e. physical, verbal, interpersonal and cyber). The participants were randomly presented with 16 scenarios, and were asked to rate the severity of the interaction between the two children, as well as indicate which types of bullying were present.

Results showed that a child’s increased age predicted higher bullying severity ratings. The findings also showed that bullying among older children with ASD is viewed as especially problematic by their parents, and that perceived bullying severity differed according to the type of bullying behavior (i.e., physical, verbal, interpersonal, and cyber). 

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“This paper emphasizes that bullying is a really broad construct,” said Morton. “What any two people might be referring to when they use the term ‘bullying’—regardless if they are parents, teachers, researchers, etc.— likely differs, and perhaps in subtle ways.”

Morton plans to further her research on this topic by focusing specifically on the bullying behaviors that children with ASD experience compared to children without ASD.

This research was conducted through Binghamton University’s Institute for Child Development, which offers early intervention services, speech services and more to children and families in the Binghamton region. 

The paper, “Conceptualizing bullying in children with autism spectrum disorder: Using a mixed model to differentiate behavior types and identify predictors,” was published in Autism.

Ancient Egyptians

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In ancient Egypt, Sacred Ibises were collected from their natural habitats to be ritually sacrificed, according to a study released November 13, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Sally Wasef of Griffith University, Australia and colleagues.

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Egyptian catacombs are famously filled with the mummified bodies of Sacred Ibises. Between around 664BC and 250AD, it was common practice for the birds to be sacrificed, or much more rarely worshipped in ritual service to the god Thoth, and subsequently mummified. In ancient sites across Egypt, these mummified birds are stacked floor to ceiling along kilometers of catacombs, totaling many millions of birds. But how the Egyptians got access to so many birds has been a mystery; some ancient texts indicate that long-term farming and domestication may have been employed.

In this study, Wasef and colleagues collected DNA from 40 mummified Sacred Ibis specimens from six Egyptian catacombs dating to around 2500 years ago and 26 modern specimens from across Africa. 14 of the mummies and all of the modern specimens yielded complete mitochondrial genome sequences. These data allowed the researchers to compare genetic diversity between wild populations and the sacrificed collections.

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If the birds were being domesticated and farmed, the expected result would be low genetic diversity due to interbreeding of restricted populations, but in contrast, this study found that the genetic diversity of mummified Ibises within and between catacombs was similar to that of modern wild populations. This suggests that the birds were not the result of centralized farming, but instead short-term taming. The authors suggest the birds were likely tended in their natural habitats or perhaps farmed only in the times of year they were needed for sacrifice.

The authors add: “We report the first complete ancient genomes of the Egyptian Sacred Ibis mummies, showing that priests sustained short-term taming of the wild Sacred Ibis in local lakes or wetlands contrary to centralised industrial scale farming of sacrificial birds.”

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Citation: Wasef S, Subramanian S, O’Rorke R, Huynen L, El-Marghani S, Curtis C, et al. (2019) Mitogenomic diversity in Sacred Ibis Mummies sheds light on early Egyptian practices. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0223964. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223964

Funding: Human Frontier Science is acknowledged for financial support in the form of a grant to DL, SI, BH, and EW(RGP0036/2011). SW thanks Griffith University for a PhD scholarship. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

In a warming world

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In a warming world, glacier scientists have to keep going higher.

An expedition to Peru captures climate history trapped in ice – before it is gone.

From the summit of Huascarán, the highest mountain in Earth’s tropics, the valleys of the western Andes look placid and peaceful – calming, even. The signs of climate change – of the melting glaciers throughout the Andes, of the changes to the local villages’ water supplies – are not immediately evident.

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But the scientific crew on top of the mountain knows those changes are there.

It’s part of why they’ve traveled so far, from the United States, Mexico, Italy, Peru, France and Russia, and tackled this harrowing climb to more than 22,000 feet: to visit the glaciers at the top and to drill columns of glacier ice to send back to The Ohio State University for analysis. The ice holds many clues to what has happened in Earth’s atmosphere and in the climate of the region over the last 20,000 years. And, if Earth keeps warming, the glacier might not be there for much longer. 

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“I’ve worked in Peru for 44 years, and have visited some of the ice fields 25 times,” said Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor in the School of Earth Sciences and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. “And I’ve been able to document the increase in temperature and the melting that is taking place on the summits of many of these glaciers.”

Huascarán is a peak in the Cordillera Blanca range in northern Peru. Thompson has been here before, in 1980, 1992, 1993, 2016, and in the summer of 2019 he led a group of scientists back to see how the glacier had changed and to collect new ice samples.

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Because of its altitude, Huascarán is one of the more challenging and dangerous peaks on which Thompson and his crew have drilled. But that altitude also protects the ice. Currently glaciers at lower altitudes, where it is warmer, are melting rapidly and Huascarán’s glacier will eventually melt, too, but for now, it is likely one of the few remaining intact tropical glaciers in the world. 

“It is our belief that this mountain is the only one in Peru that still has a largely unaltered ice record, both in the col (the flat glacier area between the North and South Peaks) and on the higher South Peak,” Thompson said. “And this makes it ideal for certain types of gas measurements that have not been made in the low latitudes before – if there’s any tropical place on Earth where gases like methane can be measured, this will be it.”   

Though they ran into some local political tensions during the expedition, the drilling process went smoothly – more smoothly, Thompson said, than any of the past 80-plus similar excursions he has led.

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Extracting ice from glaciers in the Tropics can be harrowing. The climbs are often dangerous – in the case of Huascarán, avalanches required the team’s mountaineers to create an entirely new route to the summit. (Mountain climbers are known for naming their routes; they christened this one “the Lonnie Thompson route” in Thompson’s honor.) The air gets thinner the higher up a person climbs; high-altitude sickness is a real threat. The symptoms, which include shortness of breath, can also go unnoticed or may begin as low as 8,000 feet. At 22,000 feet, the air is so thin that the scientific team traveled with “backup” oxygen tanks and a Gamow bag, a portable hyperbaric chamber that can be pressurized to sea level values. Fortunately, neither had to be used. 

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“It’s that high elevation that preserves the record in the ice cores – if you didn’t have those cold temperatures, you wouldn’t have the record,” Thompson said. “We’ve done dozens and dozens of expeditions, and the result of climate change is that we keep having to go higher on the glaciers. And that becomes an issue, because – well, I’m getting older, for one. And we are strict about acclimatizing – we go up four or five thousand meters on hikes and then come back down and sleep at lower altitudes. But it can wear on your body.” 

And Thompson, who celebrated his 71st birthday in Peru at the start of this summer’s expedition, had a heart transplant in 2012.

But the work is necessary, Thompson and the other scientists believe: Because of their ice core work, climate scientists around the world now know that climate change could have devastating effects on vulnerable people in the Andes Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau region. Their research has shown that glaciers in both parts of the world are melting more rapidly than at any point in the past 6,000 years, which could have serious repercussions for the water supply in parts of Peru, Pakistan, China, India and Nepal. 

On this most recent trip, they drilled more than 471 meters of glacial ice cores – long columns of ice that had been frozen since the last Ice Age. Work to analyze them is already underway – Thompson calls them “some of the best cores we’ve ever drilled.”

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They hope to begin publishing their findings from the cores soon. The cores will be analyzed for mineral dust to detect droughts; isotopes that indicate temperature changes; black carbon and trace elements to determine whether fires like the ones burning in the Amazon this year are part of the historical record; greenhouse gases to see how their concentrations in the atmosphere have changed over time; pollen to track vegetation changes; and microbes to determine how they have evolved over the last 20,000 years. 

In the meantime, Thompson and the team are contemplating their next excursion. There are glaciers in Peru and Tibet they would like to revisit, and there are more analyses to be made on ice they’ve already collected from other parts of the world. He wants to be sure he’s helping the next generation of scientists understand how to do this kind of field work.

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“These are difficult expeditions – there is the risk of avalanches; there is always the potential for injuries, inflections and various high altitude issues,” he said. “But if you overcome these, you realize the potential of which you’re capable. Some of our younger members just take to it like a duck to water. But the only way they are going to get that experience is to go to the field – first on lower elevation glaciers and then to the higher, more challenging glaciers like those on Huascarán.”

 

Written by: Laura Arenschield, Arenschield.2@osu.edu; 614-292-9475

The Happiness in the Workplace

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Photo by Ian Stauffer

If you want a better business, make sure your employees are happy. If you want to be a more successful employee, make sure not to neglect your own happiness.

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That’s the advice of Raj Raghunathan, professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Raghunathan studies happiness and shares his insights in both his in-person classes at McCombs and in his award-winning online Coursera class that has been taken by more than 260,000 people in 196 countries since it launched in 2015.

Now, Raghunathan is offering a new online class aimed at making workplaces better for employers, employees, clients and customers. Happier Employees and Return on Investment, an open-access four-week course offered by McCombs through edX, is now open for enrollment.

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The course explores five critical issues: why happiness at work matters; what the five most important determinants of happiness at work are; what holds people back from feeling happy and fulfilled at work; what people can do to enhance their own happiness levels at work; and what they can do to enhance the happiness of coworkers.

“When employees are happy on the job, they are more productive for their company and earn more for themselves, said Raghunathan. “They take fewer sick days, are more collegial, perform better in teams, are more creative and objective, and make better decisions.”

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There are no prerequisites for the course. It is open to anyone who wishes to register. The online video lectures can be started and stopped on whatever timeline is convenient for each student. And the course is supported by an interactive website with resources, exercises and communication portals.

“We spend so much of our lives at work,” said Raghunathan. “It makes sense for us to do everything we can to maximize how happy we are in our jobs.”

This is the first online course that McCombs is offering in collaboration with edX, with a number of others soon to be launched.

Raghunathan is the Zale Centennial Professor of Business at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York TimesFortune, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Inc., and Fast Company. He writes about happiness and leadership in a blog for Psychology Today called Sapient Nature. His book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? was published in 2016 and has been translated into 13 languages. His TED Talk has been viewed by more than 17 million people worldwide.

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For more information about Raghunathan’s work, read these McCombs Big Ideas feature stories or view the McCombs video Top Five Ways to Be Happier at Work.

For more information, contact Molly Dannenmaier at molly.dannenmaier@mccombs.utexas.edu or 512-232-6779.

A sensor to save children and pets left in vehicles

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Credit: University of Waterloo

Graduate students Mostafa Alizadeh, left, and Hajar Abedi position a doll, modified to simulate breathing, in a minivan during testing of a new sensor.

A small, inexpensive sensor could save lives by triggering an alarm when children or pets are left alone in vehicles.

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The new device, developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo, combines radar technology with artificial intelligence (AI) to detect unattended children or animals with 100-per-cent accuracy.

Small enough to fit in the palm of a hand at just three centimetres in diameter, the device is designed to be attached to a vehicle’s rear-view mirror or mounted on the ceiling.

It sends out radar signals that are reflected back by people, animals and objects in the vehicle. Built-in AI then analyzes the reflected signals.

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“It addresses a serious, world-wide problem,” said George Shaker, an engineering professor at Waterloo. his system is so affordable it could become standard equipment in all vehicles.”

Development of the wireless, disc-shaped sensor was funded in part by a major automotive parts manufacturer that is aiming to bring it to market by the end of 2020.

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Analysis by the device determines the number of occupants and their locations in a vehicle. That information could be used to set rates for ride-sharing services and toll roads, or to qualify vehicles for car-pool lanes.

Its primary purpose, however, is to detect when a child or pet has been accidentally or deliberately left behind, a scenario that can result in serious harm or death in extremely hot or cold weather.

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In such cases, the system would prevent vehicle doors from locking and sound an alarm to alert the driver, passengers and other people in the area that there is a problem.

“Unlike cameras, this device preserves privacy and it doesn’t have any blind spots because radar can penetrate seats, for instance, to determine if there is an infant in a rear-facing car seat,” said Shaker, a cross-appointed professor of electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical and mechatronics engineering.

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The low-power device, which runs on a vehicle’s battery, distinguishes between living beings and inanimate objects by detecting subtle breathing movements.

Researchers are now exploring the use of that capability to monitor the vital signs of drivers for indications of fatigue, distraction, impairment, illness or other issues.

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Shaker supervised graduate students Mostafa Alizadeh and Hajar Abedi on the research.

A paper on their project, Low-cost low-power in-vehicle occupant detection with mm-wave FMCW radar, was recently presented at an international conference in Montreal.

Autism Drug Citalopram Is Ineffective

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN
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A drug commonly given to autistic children to reduce repetitive behaviors is ineffective compared to placebo and, in some children, may actually increase repetitive behaviors, the largest study of autistic children to date has found.

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“What we found, much to our surprise, is that there was no significant difference in positive response between kids treated with citalopram and kids who received the placebo. And the kids treated with citalopram tended to have more side effects,” said Linmarie Sikich, M.D., a co-author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

“I cannot emphasize this enough: This was not at all what we expected to see,” Sikich said.

Results of the study, a randomized controlled clinical trial of the drug citalopram, are published in the June 29, 2009 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and took place at six academic medical centers across the country. Principal investigator and lead author of the study is Bryan H. King, M.D., who began the study at Dartmouth and continued to oversee it there after he moved to the University of Washington, where he is currently director of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

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Citalopram, which is sold under the brand name Celexa, is one of a class of antidepressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. SSRIs are the most frequently used medications for children with autism. They are also used to treat depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder in both adults and children. Prior to this study there was very little scientific evidence to support the use of SSRIs in autistic children, but some preliminary studies showed promising results for citalopram, Sikich said.

Hypothesizing that citalopram would improve the overall functioning of autistic children and adolescents by reducing repetitive behavior, Sikich and colleagues recruited 149 children ages 5 to 17 to take part in the 12-week trial. Seventy-three received daily doses of liquid citalopram while 76 received daily doses of liquid placebo. Researchers measured the children’s’ response to treatment using the Clinical Global Impression-Improvement scale (CGI-I). They also recorded measures of repetitive behavior and side effects.

At the end of the trial, some children in both groups showed a positive response. However, there was no significant difference between the groups: the positive response in the citalopram group was 32.9 percent versus 34.2 percent in the placebo group. In addition, children in the citalopram group were significantly more likely to experience adverse side effects such as increased energy level, impulsiveness, decreased concentration, hyperactivity, increased repetitive movements and behaviors, diarrhea, insomnia, and dry itchy skin.

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The researchers concluded that citalopram “is not an effective treatment” for autistic children with repetitive behaviors. In addition, they wrote, this trial shows that the use of SSRIs in autistic children “is not without risk” and “at present there is insufficient research evidence to merit a clear recommendation regarding the use of SSRIs as a class” for the treatment of repetitive behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders.

“The obvious short term message is, this treatment didn’t work. And that surprised us a great deal,” Sikich says. “But the really important take-home message is that we have to do large, scientifically-sound comparative studies like this to really know whether a specific treatment works and is safe. Simply relying on doctors’ and families’ impressions often leads us to use medications that really don’t work and may do more harm than good” says Sikich.

Safe and effective medication and behavioral treatments are desperately needed to help children with autism realize their potentials and keep from harming themselves or others, Sickish says.

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“Well-done studies, using methods like the ones in this study, have shown that another drug, risperidone, is useful in reducing irritability and aggression in children with autism,” she says. “Thus, this study shouldn’t be interpreted as saying all medications don’t help people with autism and are harmful. Instead it says that citalopram doesn’t help most children with autism and is harmful to some children. Clearly we need more research to develop and test other interventions for this important problem.”

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People with autism are severely impaired by the disorder and experience major problems with highly repetitive behaviors, often including self-injurious behaviors, communicating and interacting appropriately with others. Frequently the repetitive behaviors keep children with autism from learning in school or participating in age appropriate activities. When it is time to stop the repetitive behavior and begin a new, functional activity, many children with autism become distraught and aggressive. These repetitive behaviors also contribute to the difficulties that make it hard for most people with autism to live independently or work as adults, Sikich says.

In addition to UNC, academic medical centers taking part in the study were Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, Dartmouth, UCLA and Yale University.

The study was conducted as part of the NIH-sponsored Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment network.

Deep sea vents had ideal conditions for origin of life

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Photo by Silas Baisch
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By creating protocells in hot, alkaline seawater, a UCL-led research team has added to evidence that the origin of life could have been in deep-sea hydrothermal vents rather than shallow pools.

Previous experiments had failed to foster the formation of protocells – seen as a key stepping stone to the development of cell-based life – in such environments, but the new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, finds that heat and alkalinity might not just be acceptable, but necessary to get life started.

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“There are multiple competing theories as to where and how life started. Underwater hydrothermal vents are among most promising locations for life’s beginnings – our findings now add weight to that theory with solid experimental evidence,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Nick Lane (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment).

Deep under the Earth’s seas, there are vents where seawater comes into contact with minerals from the planet’s crust, reacting to create a warm, alkaline (high on the pH scale) environment containing hydrogen. The process creates mineral-rich chimneys with alkaline and acidic fluids, providing a source of energy that facilitates chemical reactions between hydrogen and carbon dioxide to form increasingly complex organic compounds.

Some of the world’s oldest fossils, discovered by a UCL-led team, originated in such underwater vents.

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Scientists researching the origins of life have made great progress with experiments to recreate the early chemical processes in which basic cell formations would have developed. The creation of protocells has been an important step, as they can be seen as the most basic form of a cell, consisting of just a bilayer membrane around an aqueous solution – a cell with a defined boundary and inner compartment.

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Previous experiments to create protocells from naturally-occurring simple molecules – specifically, fatty acids – have succeeded in cool, fresh water, but only under very tightly controlled conditions, whereas the protocells have fallen apart in experiments in hydrothermal vent environments.

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The study’s first author, Dr Sean Jordan (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment), said he and his colleagues identified a flaw in the previous work: “Other experiments had all used a small number of molecule types, mostly with fatty acids of the same size, whereas in natural environments, you would expect to see a wider array of molecules.”

For the current study, the research team tried creating protocells with a mixture of different fatty acids and fatty alcohols that had not previously been used.

The researchers found that molecules with longer carbon chains needed heat in order to form themselves into a vesicle (protocell). An alkaline solution helped the fledgling vesicles keep their electric charge. A saltwater environment also proved helpful, as the fat molecules banded together more tightly in a salty fluid, forming more stable vesicles.

For the first time, the researchers succeeded at creating self-assembling protocells in an environment similar to that of hydrothermal vents. They found that the heat, alkalinity and salt did not impede the protocell formation, but actively favoured it.

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“In our experiments, we have created one of the essential components of life under conditions that are more reflective of ancient environments than many other laboratory studies,” Dr Jordan said.

“We still don’t know where life first formed, but our study shows that you cannot rule out the possibility of deep-sea hydrothermal vents.”

The researchers also point out that deep-sea hydrothermal vents are not unique to Earth.

Professor Lane said: “Space missions have found evidence that icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn might also have similarly alkaline hydrothermal vents in their seas. While we have never seen any evidence of life on those moons, if we want to find life on other planets or moons, studies like ours can help us decide where to look.”

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The study involved researchers from UCL and Birkbeck, University of London, and was funded by the BBSRC and bgC3.