Our Actual “Eve”

She lived about 150,000 years ago in southern Africa. These days she is known as Mitochondrial Eve. The “Eve” part is a little misleading since unlike the Biblical Eve, Mitochondrial Eve wasn’t the first or only woman alive at the time, and there were also plenty of men around. Still, Mitochondrial Eve was an actual person to whom every human today, male as well as female, can be traced back on his or her mother’s side—from mother to mother’s mother and so on.

But interesting as such a linkage may be to scientists, how significant is Mitochondrial Eve for us? See what you think.

Mitochondria in a cell (Flickr)

Mitochondria in a typical cell. The long thread of genetic DNA in the nucleus is shown, but the unrelated DNA inside the mitochondria is not. (Flickr)

Mitochondria (my-de-KAHN-dree-ah) are particles inside of cells that produce energy for the cell. Originally independent cells themselves, mitochondria were engulfed by larger cells long ago, proved useful, and made themselves at home.

When they did so, mitochondria brought with them their own bits of DNA. These strands are not related to, and are much smaller than, the complex DNA in a cell’s nucleus that make up our genes. But like all DNA molecules, as mitochondrial DNA makes copies of itself, it sometimes mutates; copying errors occur and the DNA changes slightly. As a result, mitochondrial DNA, handed down through generations of female humans, forms a record of our ancestry separate from our genes.

If this is difficult to visualize, a rough analogy is the battery in a car. These 12-volt energy-units that power the starter motor come in different brands with serial numbers and other codes on them. Over the years, independently of changes in cars themselves, battery manufacturers make changes to car batteries. Now imagine that you had no other way of telling the age of a car that had, say, been crushed beyond recognition. One option w ould be to dig out what was left of the car battery to find its codes or numbers. The car battery would date the car.

But if a particular version of mitochondrial DNA is passed down through women, how is it that males also carry it?  Because this DNA comes in the cell that each human grows from, and that cell is our mother’s. Fathers, through their sperm, contribute some of the genetic DNA that creates the new person, but the cell that begins to divide and multiply is mom’s, complete with her formulation of mitochondria DNA.

At the time that Mitochondrial Eve lived, of course, other mothers were passing along their own mitochondrial DNA to their own children, to their daughters’ children, etc. What happened to all those versions? Why is it that today’s humans everywhere carry the same version, the same mutation, of mitochondrial DNA? Apparently all those other lines of mitochondrial DNA fizzled out. Some mothers bore only sons, with no daughters to carry on their cell line. Other women had no children at all. The single remaining “brand” of mitochondrial DNA has been traced back to an approximate place and time five thousand generations ago. It is as if over the years all brands of car batteries went out of production except one, and that one is now installed in all cars.

What are we to make of all this? Compared to the Biblical Eve and her list of firsts—first woman, first human to be curious, first mother—Mitochondrial Eve wasn’t a forerunner of any of our significant traits. It’s that other  DNA, the genetic DNA from our mother and father, that plays a role in the color of our eyes and our musical aptitude.

Still, as biomedical historian Siddhartha Mukherjee puts it The Gene: An Intimate History:  “I find the idea of such a founding mother endlessly mesmerizing.”

It is mesmerizing to know that a small identifier in each of us can be traced back to a single human mother long ago. In theory, any diverse group of living things has a common ancestor after whom its descendants branched off. But that common ancestor may be difficult to “relate” to. The ancestors of all primates (not only humans but also monkeys, baboons, and chimps) lived about 60 million years ago and looked something like a squirrel with large eyes. I don’t feel the warmth.

On the other hand, I like the idea of being descended from a mother a long time ago from whom all other humans today are matrilineally descended as well, and whom we could, if we saw her, recognize as one of us.

The Body Electric

We are juiced. From head to toe, miles of membrane shuttle electric charges through the body. Impulses pour in to my brain from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin as raw versions of what I see on this screen, the feeling of the keys at my fingertips, the tapping sounds; then out from the brain through the wires to the muscles in my hands and fingers to type the s e  l e t t e r s.

Simple nerve systems appeared in early jellyfish and other sea creatures about 500 million years ago.  Loose nets of nerves responded to light and the touch of other creatures as these swimmers captured smaller fish and dodged bigger ones.

Much earlier, in the first fully developed cells, neurons began to evolve from membranes. A membrane, in Wikipedia’s words, is “a selective barrier; it allows some things to pass through but stops others.” A cell’s membrane helped the cell manage the salt levels inside the cell as it floated through the salty ocean. And since the salts of sodium, potassium and calcium consist of atoms with a positive or negative charge, the pores in membranes became gates that opened and closed to control the electrical potential across the membrane itself.

As animals evolved, such membranes lengthened into neurons with conductive axons, the “wire” of the nerve cell. In us, the longest axon runs down the length of each leg, branching as it goes. The shortest axons, fractions of a millimeter, fill our heads by the billions.

Neurons in the brain (Wikipedia)

Neurons in the brain
(Wikipedia)

The axons don’t carry an electric charge in the way that a wire carries electricity or a lightning bolt of electrons crashes to the ground. Instead, think of the wave at a sports stadium, where groups of fans stand up, throw their hands in the air, and sit down in a spontaneous sequence that moves through the rows. A nerve impulse moves down the axon in a similar way, charged atoms crossing through opened pores from one side of the membrane to the other and then quickly back again while the “wave” of the electric charge moves along.

The impulse never varies in strength. It is either on or off, either moving or only ready to move. There are no drops in the current, no power failures, no biological surge protectors needed. If a muscle must contract to move a load, the nerve signal, always at the same strength, simply repeats rapidly enough so that the muscle cells remain contracted.

At both ends of the axon, where the impulse begins and ends, devices of various kinds translate between the electrical charge and other structures. In the ear, sound waves cause small hairs to vibrate and set off the impulses that we hear as “hello.” In our eyes, light causes molecular changes that trigger the impulses to the brain to form the image we recognize as a chair. Where a neuron terminates at a muscle cell, the final “wave” triggers chemicals that start the muscle’s contraction.

We barely notice all this wizardry. Compared to the breath that we can feel and the blood we can see, our circuitry is undetectable. But if we’ve been shocked by a faulty toaster or we suffer from numbness or irregular heartbeats, we’ve glimpsed what can go wrong.

In another way, though, we are always aware of the electricity in us. Notice the faint tingle that is always present in our limbs and head. It’s a sense of animation, a potential, an ability to move a muscle, look around or think a thought at any time. That tingly readiness is, essentially, our neurons at the ready. It’s a reminder that we’re alive.