On a tangent

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Years ago, primatologist Jane Goodall described wild chimpanzees using sticks to fish for termites. Inserting the tips into a mound, the chimps then withdrew them covered with termites, which they conscientiously pecked off the wood the way humans peck at corn on the cob. The news was ground-breaking in animal behaviour circles because it showed that great apes showed signs of being just as smart as their close cousins, humans, by using tools to help them in their daily chores. Using tools - and even more so, crafting them - to make life easier is a form of intelligence. Perverting something from its original purpose, such as a branch, so that it can be used to one's advantage is yet another form of intelligence, and it is a phenomenon that is widely used by living beings across all kingdoms. Even on the molecular level, cells sometimes acquire the capacity to divert metabolic pathways for their own benefit. Tumour cells show particular skills in this way and will literally hijack biological molecules to do this. An example is the enzyme PCK1, a phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, whose major role is to produce glucose and which certain cancer cells, for their survival, subvert to produce mainly fats.

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