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Biologists unlock 51.7 million year old genetic secret to Charles Darwin’s theory

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Primula allionii. Wikimedia.

December 6, 2016: A 51.7 million-year-old genetic secret to Charles Darwin’s theory proposed more than 150 years ago has been unlocked by scientists. The genes responsible for the reproductive traits in the Primula flower have been recognized by researchers.

Darwin suggested that certain plant species having two distinct forms of flowers, with the male and female reproductive parts of different lengths evolved in a way to perform out-crossing by insect pollinators.

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Darwin’s pioneering insight into the importance of the forms of flower called ‘pins’ and ‘thrums’ conceived the term ‘heterostyly’ and succeeding research added up to formulate the modern genetic theory.

The particular part of the species’ genetic code which defined them was identified by scientists at University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. It was the result of an event which occurred more than 51 million years ago.

According to PTI, Professor Philip Gilmartin from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said, “To identify the genes which control the biology noted by Darwin is an exciting moment. Many studies have been done over the past decades to explore the genetic basis of this phenomenon but now we have pinpointed the supergene directly responsible, the S locus”.

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Congregations of closely linked genes inherited as a unit together and allow the control of complex microbiology are called supergenes. The researchers worked in association with Earlham Institute in the UK to plot the Primula’s genes and sequence its genome to find the gene cluster responsible for the different flower morphs.

Gilmartin tells, “Understanding of the genetics which underpin flower development and reproduction of a species broadens our knowledge about the entire system of pollination, which underpins biodiversity and food security”.

He also said that with challenges like climatic changes and its effects on plant life and their insect pollinators, it is imperative for us to understand the mechanisms for pollination and how the species react.

Amidst the search for the controlling gene responsible for heterostyly, the researchers dated the initial mutation to 51.7 million years ago.

On finding the S locus, the researchers realized that the gene was a close relative to another one identified six years ago which is responsible for controlling the petals’ identity on a Primula flower.

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At some point, the duplication of the gene occurred and the gene entered itself in the S locus and mutated to take control over the positioning of the anther in the flower. The Nature Plants journal published the study.

-prepared by Shivam Thaker of NewsGram with PTI inputs. Twitter:@Shivam_Thaker.

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Ethiopia to Renew Safety Questions After Devastating Plane Crash

The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it

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ethiopia, plane crash
FILE - Workers service an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane at the Bole International Airport in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 26, 2017. VOA

Investigators rushed to the scene of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia on Sunday, an accident that could renew safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.

The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it.

In those circumstances, the accident is eerily similar to an October crash in which a 737 Max 8 flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on the plane.

Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes.

Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem” with the Ethiopian jetliner.

ethiopia, plane crash
The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Pixabay

But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes. He said Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation.

By contrast, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO “stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.

“I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far,” he said.

Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane.

The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.

A spokesman for the NTSB said the U.S. agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities. Boeing and the U.S. investigative agency are also involved in the Lion Air probe.

ethiopia, plane crash
The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it. Pixabay

Indonesian investigators have not stated a cause for the Lion Air crash, but they are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate that a plane is about to lose lift, or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall.

The Lion Air plane’s flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed.

Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements.

Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, protested that they were not fully informed about a new system that could automatically point the plane’s nose down based on sensor readings. Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in December that the Max is a safe plane, and that Boeing did not withhold operating details from airlines and pilots.

Diehl, the former NTSB investigator, said the Ethiopian Airlines pilots should have been aware of that issue from press coverage of the Lion Air crash.

ethiopia, plane crash
Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes. Pixabay

The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max is the newest version of it, with more fuel-efficient engines. The Max is a central part of Boeing’s strategy to compete with European rival Airbus.

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Boeing has delivered about 350 737 Max planes and has orders for more than 5,000. It is already in use by many airlines including American, United and Southwest.

The Lion Air incident does not seem to have harmed Boeing’s ability to sell the Max. Boeing’s stock fell nearly 7 percent on the day of the Lion Air crash. Since then it has soared 26 percent higher, compared with a 4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. (IANS)