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What we’re reading this month: February 2018

In between meetings, events, science workshops, and getting work done in the lab, Helix employees love finding a few minutes here and there to read. (A, C, G, and T might be our four favorite letters, but we actually like all of them.) Each month, we’ll be highlighting articles and books that catch our attention.
Have any recommendations of your own? Connect with us on Twitter and let us know.
This month, we’ll take a look at 3 articles which discuss the early origins of life—from pond scum to walking fish—and also learn about how genetics may affect blood pressure in modern humans.

“The Microbial Eve: Our Oldest Ancestors Were Single-Celled Organisms”
If you’re interested in history our learning about our ancestors, you may enjoy learning about our shared relative named LUCA. This article describes what we know about our Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA), who lived billions of years ago. Unfortunately, the fossils of creatures that inhabited the earth billions of years ago are somewhat difficult to find—so to study these ancient ancestors of ours, researchers have used the DNA of many living organisms to build a picture of what early life looked like. In this short article, NPR gives you an overview of who LUCA was.

“Land plants arose earlier than thought—and may have had a bigger impact on the evolution of animals”
Science Magazine
For life to exist on land, conditions need to be just right. The atmosphere needs oxygen and we need a defense against the harsh light pouring down from the sun. The arrival of plants on land helped foster these conditions by pumping oxygen into the atmosphere and molding the terrestrial environment. Scientists have been trying to learn about these early ancestors of modern-day plants. The fossil record can only take us so far, so researchers have turned to DNA, using genetic data combined with powerful computers to help advance our understanding of what early life on this planet looked like.

“Primitive fish’s sea-floor shuffle illuminates the origins of walking”
Nature News
Evidence published this month in the journal Cell indicates that animals may have been able to walk long before the first creatures crawled out of the ocean. The study explored a primitive fish known as the skate (Leucoraja erinacea). This shark-like creature can swim, but also is able to walk along the seafloor (click the link above for an awesome video of the skate walking). Researchers analyzed neurons in the skate and found similar DNA sequences to those found in humans. These findings suggest that animals may have been walking millions of years earlier than we thought.

“New Blood Pressure Loci Identified in Smoking Status-Informed GWAS”
Genome Web
Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) analyze the DNA in large groups of people. These studies look for correlations between a specific DNA sequence and various traits (like height, BMI, or development of disease). This article summarizes a recent publication in Genome Magazine that used data from a large GWAS study to determine how our DNA may influence blood pressure. Studies like this have been done before, but these researchers took a unique approach to segmenting the participants in their study. As a result, they identified new locations in the human genome that may help us learn about someone’s risk for having high blood pressure.