Of course we all remember the classic sci-fi film Day of the Triffids, in which churlish, man-eating plants roam a post-apocalyptic Earth, spitting poison and being generally unpleasant. Well, set the Triffids aside for a moment; they were only brought onstage to get your attention. Think instead of a plant you actually adore, basking in its little terra cotta pot on a sun-drenched windowsill. There. Better? We hope so. Because it’s been discovered that you and that potted plant have something in common. What could it be? Posture? Turgidity? A greenish complexion? Nope.
Now, don’t get all excited; we can explain. At the Scripps Institute they discovered that plants and humans share a certain quality in their immune systems. It seems the pathogen-punching Nod-Like Receptor family of proteins in humans (NLR proteins) are switched on by the same SGT1 protein that activates the disease-dropkicking Resistance (or simply R) protein in plants. Or to put it a bit more interestingly, the plant immune response and the human immune response proteins are identical cousins. Call them the Patty Duke Show Proteins. (Just a thought).
Perhaps more intriguingly, while scientists have long been fascinated by the structural similarity between the human NLR and the plant kingdom’s R disease-battling proteins, it had previously seemed too far-fetched to imagine that these plant and human proteins actually played the same role in slapping down bacteria. These plant and human proteins are, in a sense, twin knights of different kingdoms—the plant and animal kingdoms.
What’s more, the scientists have also concluded that these long-separated bacteria-bashers are highly conserved from an evolutionary standpoint, which is to say, while many Darwinian changes transpired over the eons in the micro-guts of plants and animals, these twin proteins remained largely unchanged through time—putting them in the cozy middle-lane of Natural Selection’s Tunnel of Love. So to speak. These two proteins are somehow fundamental to Earth’s two living kingdoms. Yes, it’s time to hug your Philodendron. Like you mean it.
This can only mean that plants and humans are descended from a common talking-plant ancestor.
Yeah, there is a surprisingly robust genetic intersection between plants and mammals, but this common human/plant pathogen-fighting doesn’t signal our all having once been Triffids. In fact, one of the study’s scientists went ahead and threw cold water on any mystical plant/human conviviality this discovery might inspire. It turns out that, no matter how small and weird the mechanics, we’re still talking about the limits of machinery—the scientist basically asserting that these feisty protein structures exist in both humans and plants because…well, they do the same thing in pretty much the same way.
It turns out that, even in the quasi-magical realm of microbiology, there are only so many ways to put your pants on. Even Mother Nature can weary of conjuring wondrous complexity, the old dear. In this case she tossed the same disease-fighting stuff into both plants and animals; probably at the end of a very, very long day. Who can’t relate to that? This is why we love her.
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