Plant RNAs Found in Mammals

When I was working out the Janiverse and trying to formulate some handwavy justification for human-idomeni hybridization, I considered that the influence of a new environment–simple exposure to the air, soil, and water of other worlds–would begin to nudge humans and idomeni toward some combination state by affecting metabolism, gene mutation, etc. Change would be glacially slow, but if the two races shared the same environments long enough, they would eventually, eventually, blend to form a single race. John Shroud sped up the process, Jani’s continued exposure to idomeni environments flipped on genetic switches that he had turned off, and the results played out over the course of five books. I never worked out the grand master template for it all–I’m not sure whether humans and idomeni developed naturally from a single ancestor or were designed by some elder race that also left behind the Gateways. I only developed enough backstory to move Jani’s immediate tale forward.

Then I poke around online when I should be doing other things, and I find stuff like this and realize that I could have done a lot more with the genetics/environmental influence slice of the tale.

MicroRNAs from common plant crops such as rice and cabbage can be found in the blood and tissues of humans and other plant-eating mammals, according to a study published today in Cell Research. One microRNA in particular, MIR168a, which is highly enriched in rice, was found to inhibit a protein that helps removes low-density lipoprotein (LDL) from the blood, suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms.

And then there’s this post from Ed Yong’s blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Japanese people have special tools that let them get more out of eating sushi than Americans can. They are probably raised with these utensils from an early age and each person wields millions of them. By now, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not talking about chopsticks.

The tools in question are genes that can break down some of the complex carbohydrate molecules in seaweed, one of the main ingredients in sushi. The genes are wielded by the hordes of bacteria lurking in the guts of every Japanese person, but not by those in American intestines. And most amazingly of all, this genetic cutlery set is a loan. Some gut bacteria have borrowed their seaweed-digesting genes from other microbes living in the coastal oceans. This is the story of how these genes emigrated from the sea into the bowels of Japanese people.***

The heavier weight science would have pushed the story in a different direction; it might have morphed into that grand, sweeping, multigenerational tale that I’ve always dreamed of writing. Maybe I didn’t trust myself enough to get things right, or found the socio-political effects of hybridization more interesting at the time. I think that now, the same ingredients would combine to make a very different tale.

I also think that given these discoveries, the existence of GMO’s in the food chain make me a helluva lot more uncomfortable than they did, say, this morning.

Now, it’s late. Gaby just came in from outside. She must have been hunting through the weeds for some critter or other because the hair on one side of her face is matted with sticky seeds and I have no idea how in hell I’m going to pick them out.

***(Yong’s post made it into The Best American Science Writing of 2011, and if you aren’t already following him on Twitter or subscribed to his blog’s RSS feed, you should right that wrong immediately. Just saying.)