Every species seems to come and go. Some last longer than others, but nothing lasts forever. Humans are a relatively recent phenomenon, jumping out of trees and striding across the land around 200 000 years ago. Will we persist for many millions of years to come, or are we headed for an evolutionary makeover, or even extinction?
According to Reinhard Stindl, of the Institute of Medical Biology in Vienna, the answer to this question could lie at the tips of our chromosomes. In a controversial new theory he suggests that all eukaryotic species (everything except bacteria and algae) have an evolutionary "clock" that ticks through generations, counting down to an eventual extinction date. This clock might help to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of evolution, but it also overturns current thinking and even questions the orthodoxy of Darwin's natural selection.
For over 100 years, scientists have grappled with the cause of "background" extinction. Mass extinction events, like the wiping out of dinosaurs 65m years ago, are impressive and dramatic, but account for only around 4% of now extinct species. The majority slip away quietly and without any fanfare. Over 99% of all the species that ever lived on Earth have already passed on, so what happened to the species that weren't annihilated during mass extinction events?
Charles Darwin proposed that evolution is controlled by "survival of the fittest". Current natural selection models imply that evolution is a slow and steady process, with continuous genetic mutations leading to new species that find a niche to live in, or die. But digging through the layers of rock, palaeontologists have found that evolution seems to go in fits and starts. Most species seem to have long stable periods followed by a burst of change: not the slow, steady process predicted by natural selection. Originally scientists attributed this jagged pattern to the imperfections of the fossil record. But in recent years more detailed studies have backed up the idea that evolution proceeds in fits and starts.
The quiet periods in the fossil record where evolution seems to stagnate are a big problem for natural selection: evolution can't just switch on and off. Over 20 years ago the late Stephen Jay Gould suggested internal genetic mechanisms could regulate these quiet evolutionary periods but until now no-one could explain how it would work.
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