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What the heck happened with .org?

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If you are following the tech news, you might have seen the announcement that ICANN withheld consent for the change of control of the Public Interest Registry and that this had some implications for .org.  However, unless you follow a lot of DNS inside baseball, it might not be that clear what all this means. This post is intended to give a high level overview of the background here and what happened with .org. In addition, Mozilla has been actively engaged in the public discussion on this topic; see here for a good starting point.

The Structure and History of Internet Naming

As you’ve probably noticed, Web sites have names like “”, “”, etc. These are called “domain names.” The way this all works is that there are a number of “top-level domains” (.org, .com, .io, …) and then people can get names within those domains (i.e., that end in one of those). Top level domains (TLDs) come in two main flavors:

  • Country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) which represent some country or region like .us (United States), .uk (United Kingdom, etc.)

Back at the beginning of the Internet, there were five gTLDs which were intended to roughly reflect the type of entity registering the name:

  • .com: for “commercial-related domains”
  • .edu: for educational institutions
  • .gov: for government entities (really, US government entities)
  • .mil: for the US Military (remember, the Internet came out of US government research)
  • .org: for organizations (“any other domains”)

It’s important to remember that until the 90s, much of the Internet ran under an Acceptable Use Policy which discouraged/forbid commercial use and so these distinctions were inherently somewhat fuzzy, but nevertheless people had the rough understanding that .org was for non-profits and the like and .com was for companies.

During this period the actual name registrations were handled by a series of government contractors (first SRI and then Network Solutions) but the creation and assignment of the top-level domains was under the control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which in practice, mostly meant the decisions of its Director, Jon Postel. However, as the Internet became bigger, this became increasingly untenable especially as IANA was run under a contract to the US government. Through a long and somewhat complicated series of events, in 1998 this responsibility was handed off to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which administers the overall system, including setting the overall rules and determining which gTLDs will exist (which ccTLDs exist is determined by ISO 3166-1 country codes, as described in RFC 1591). ICANN has created a pile of new gTLDs, such as .dev, .biz, and .wtf (you may be wondering whether the world really needed .wtf, but there it is). As an aside, many of the newer names you see registered are not actually under gTLDs, but rather ccTLDs that happen to correspond to countries lucky enough to have cool sounding country codes. For instance, .io is actually the British Indian Ocean’s TLD and .tv belongs to Tuvalu.

One of the other things that ICANN does is determine who gets to run each TLD. The way this all works is that ICANN determines who gets to be the registry, i.e., who keeps the records of who has which name as well as some of the technical data needed to actually route name lookups. The actual work of registering domain names is done by a registrar, who engages with the customer. Importantly, while registrars compete for business at some level (i.e., multiple people can sell you a domain in .com), there is only one registry for a given TLD and so they don’t have any price competition within that TLD; if you want a .com domain, VeriSign gets to set the price floor. Moreover, ICANN doesn’t really try to keep prices down; in fact, they recently removed the cap on the price of .org domains (bringing it in line with most other TLDs). One interesting fact about these contracts is that they are effectively perpetual: the contracts themselves are for quite long terms and registry agreements typically provide for automatic renewal except under cases of significant misbehavior by the registry. In other words, this is a more or less permanent claim on the revenues for a given TLD.

The bottom line here is that this is all quite lucrative. For example, in FY19 VeriSign’s revenue was over $1.2 billion. ICANN itself makes money in two main ways. First, it takes a cut of the revenue from each domain registration and second it auctions off the contracts for new gTLDs if more than one entity wants to register them. In the fiscal year ending in June 2018, ICANN made $136 million in total revenues (it was $302 million the previous year due to a large amount of revenue from gTLD auctions).

ISOC and .org

This brings us to the story of ISOC and .org. Until 2003, VeriSign operated .com, .net, and .org, but ICANN and VeriSign agreed to give up running .org (while retaining the far more profitable .com). As stated in their proposal:

As a general matter, it will largely eliminate the vestiges of special or unique treatment of VeriSign based on its legacy activities before the formation of ICANN, and generally place VeriSign in the same relationship with ICANN as all other generic TLD registry operators. In addition, it will return the .org registry to its original purpose, separate the contract expiration dates for the .com and .net registries, and generally commit VeriSign to paying its fair share of the costs of ICANN without any artificial or special limits on that responsibility.

The Internet Society (ISOC) is a nonprofit organization with the mission to support and promote “the development of the Internet as a global technical infrastructure, a resource to enrich people’s lives, and a force for good in society”. In 2002, they submitted one of 11 proposals to take over as the registry for .org and ICANN ultimately selected them. ICANN had a list of 11 criteria for the selection and the board minutes are pretty vague on the reason for selecting ISOC, but at the time this was widely understood as ICANN using the .org contract to provide a subsidy for ISOC and ISOC’s work. In any case, it ended up being quite a large subsidy: in 2018, PIR’s revenue from .org was over $92 million.

The actual mechanics here are somewhat complicated: it’s not like ISOC runs the registry itself. Instead they created a new non-profit subsidiary, the Public Interest Registry (PIR), to hold the contract with ICANN to manage .org. PIR in turn contracts the actual operations to Afilias, which is also the registry for a pile of other domains in their own right. [This isn’t an uncommon structure. For instance, VeriSign is the registry for .com, but they also run .tv for Tuvalu.] This will become relevant to our story shortly. Additionally, in the summer of 2019, PIR’s ten year agreement with ICANN renewed, but under new terms: looser contractual conditions to mirror those for the new gTLDs (yes, including .wtf), including the removal of a price cap and certain other provisions.

The PIR Sale

So, by 2018, ISOC was sitting on a pretty large ongoing revenue stream in the form of .org registration fees. However, ISOC management felt that having essentially all of their funding dependent on one revenue source was unwise and that actually running .org was a mismatch with ISOC’s main mission. Instead, they entered into a deal to sell PIR (and hence the .org contract) to a private equity firm called Ethos Capital, which is where things get interesting.

Ordinarily, this would be a straightforward-seeming transaction, but under the terms of the .org Registry Agreement, ISOC had to get approval from ICANN for the sale (or at least for PIR to retain the contract):

7.5              Change of Control; Assignment and Subcontracting.  Except as set forth in this Section 7.5, neither party may assign any of its rights and obligations under this Agreement without the prior written approval of the other party, which approval will not be unreasonably withheld.  For purposes of this Section 7.5, a direct or indirect change of control of Registry Operator or any subcontracting arrangement that relates to any Critical Function (as identified in Section 6 of Specification 10) for the TLD (a “Material Subcontracting Arrangement”) shall be deemed an assignment.

Soon after the proposed transaction was announced, a number of organizations (especially Access Now and EFF) started to surface concerns about the transaction. You can find a detailed writeup of those concerns here but I think a fair summary of the argument is that .org was special (and in particular that a lot of NGOs relied on it) and that Ethos could not be trusted to manage it responsibly. A number of concerns were raised, including that Ethos might aggressively raise prices in order to maximize their profit or that they could be more susceptible to governmental pressure to remove the domain names of NGOs that were critical of them. You can find Mozilla’s comments on the proposed sale here. The California Attorney General’s Office also weighed in opposing the sale in a letter that implied it might take independent action to stop it, saying:

This office will continue to evaluate this matter, and will take whatever action necessary to protect Californians and the nonprofit community.

In turn, Ethos and ISOC mounted a fairly aggressive PR campaign of their own, including creating a number of new commitments intended to alleviate concerns that had been raised, such as a new “Stewardship Council” with some level of input into privacy and policy decisions, an amendment to the operating agreement with ICANN to provide for additional potential oversight going forward, and a promise not to raise prices by more than 10%/year for 8 years. At the end of the day these efforts did not succeed: ICANN announced on April 30 that they would withhold consent for the deal (see here for their reasoning).

What Now?

As far as I can tell, this decision merely returns the situation to the status quo ante (see this post by Milton Mueller for some more detailed analysis). In particular, ISOC will continue to operate PIR and be able to benefit from the automatic renewal (and the agreement runs through 2029 in any case). To the extent to which you trusted PIR to manage .org responsibly a month ago, there’s no reason to think that has changed (of course, people’s opinions may have changed because of the proposed sale). However, as Mueller points out, none of the commitments that Ethos made in order to make the deal more palatable apply here, and in particular, thanks to the new contract in 2019, PIR ISOC is free to raise prices without being bound by the 10% annual commitment that Ethos had offered.

It’s worth noting that “Save dot Org” at least doesn’t seem happy to leave .org in the hands of ISOC and in particular has called for ICANN to rebid the contract. Here’s what they say:

This is not the final step needed for protecting the .Org domain. ICANN must now open a public process for bids to find a new home for the .Org domain. ICANN has established processes and criteria that outline how to hold a reassignment process. We look forward to seeing a competitive process and are eager to support the participation in that process by the global nonprofit community.

For ICANN to actually try to take .org away from ISOC seems like it would be incredibly contentious and ICANN hasn’t given any real signals about what they intend to do here. It’s possible they will try to rebid the contract (though it’s not clear to me exactly whether the contract terms really permit this) or that they’ll just be content to leave things as they are, with ISOC running .org through 2029.

Regardless of what the Internet Society and ICANN choose to do here, I think that this has revealed the extent to which the current domain name ecosystem depends on informal understandings of what the various actors are going to do, as opposed to formal commitments to do them. For instance, many opposed to the sale seem to have expected that ISOC would continue to manage .org in the public interest and felt that the Ethos sale threatened that. However, as a practical matter the registry agreement doesn’t include any such obligation and in particular nothing really stops them from raising prices much higher in order to maximize profit as opponents argued Ethos might do (although ISOC’s nonprofit status means they can’t divest those profits directly). Similarly, those who were against the sale and those who were in favor of it seem to have had rather radically different expectations about what ICANN was supposed to do (actively ensure that .org be managed in a specific way versus just keep the system running with a light touch) and at the end of the day were relying on ICANN’s discretion to act one way or the other. It remains to be seen whether this is an isolated incident or whether this is a sign of a deeper disconnect that will cause increasing friction going forward.

The post What the heck happened with .org? appeared first on The Mozilla Blog.

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14 days ago
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NDRIO and the Canadian Digital Research Infrastructure Strategy

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Lisez-le en français

This observation was written by Caroline Winter.

A photo of an empty grey metal bridge

At a glance:

TitleDigital Research Infrastructure Strategy
CreatorGovernment of Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada
Publication Daten/a
KeywordsCanadian government, data management, open data

As reported in “How the 2018 Federal Budget Impacts Research in Canada,” the Government of Canada’s 2018 federal budget included $572.5 million to fund a Digital Research Infrastructure (DRI) Strategy. This DRI Strategy supports data management, research software, advanced research computing (ARC), and other digital research infrastructure in Canada.

The DRI Strategy, a program of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada, has five key components:

  • Providing $375 million to fund a new, national, not-for-profit RDI organization
  • Investing $145 million in CANARIE
  • Investing $50 million to expand ARC capacity at the five existing national host sites: McGill University, Simon Fraser University, the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, and the University of Waterloo
  • Ongoing support for highly qualified personnel in the field of DRI
  • Clarifying the roles of provincial and institutional DRI stakeholders (Government of Canada 2019a).

The creation of a new DRI organization will restructure the DRI landscape in Canada, streamlining the existing system and adding a national layer, as shown in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: Current National Digital Research Infrastructure Landscape

Source: Government of Canada, Digital Research Infrastructure

Figure 2: Future National Digital Research Infrastructure Landscape

Source: Government of Canada, Digital Research Infrastructure

The New DRI Organization (NDRIO–NOIRN)

The creation of a new national RDI organization is the cornerstone of the RDI Strategy. In response to the call for proposals issued in April 2019, the U15 Group of Research Universities announced the creation of a steering group to develop a proposal for this new organization. After consulting with the research community, that steering group (known as the Applicant Board) submitted a proposal in May 2019, which was approved.

From September–November 2019, the Applicant Board conducted a series of community consultations about the membership and governance structures of the new organization, dubbed NDRIO–NOIRN (New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization – Nouvelle Organization de l’Infrastructure de Recherche Numérique). The Board posted a Summary of these consultations in fall 2019.

In December 2019, NDRIO shared its Governance and Membership Model. A service delivery model and transition plan is under development, with support from Compute Canada (Westgrid 2020).

NDRIO officially launched at a Special Members’ Meeting on March 11, 2020. It has over 300 full and associate institutional founding members from more than 135 institutions (Westgrid 2020; Rankin 2020). The 15-member board of directors, elected at this meeting, is chaired by Janet Davidson and co-chair Peter MacKinnon. NDRIO’s Corporate Plan 2020–2021 and other governance documents are available on its website.

The DRI Strategy and the INKE Community

The DRI Strategy and the formation of NDRIO will restructure the digital research landscape in Canada, and it will affect the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) and Compute Canada directly. Compute Canada will continue to be funded until March 31, 2022, after which many of its functions will transfer to NDRIO (Government of Canada 2019b).

CARL will continue to provide institutional RDM support, but national-level RDM responsibilities will be eventually transitioned from Research Data Canada (RDC) and CANARIE to NDRIO (Government of Canada 2019b).

NDRIO’s members include several INKE partners: the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), CARL, and Compute Canada. INKE member Constance Crompton gave a talk on “Research Infrastructure in HSS” at the Special Members’ meeting in March 2020.

The DRI Strategy and Open Scholarship in Canada

As noted in a Canadian Foundation for Innovation report from 2015, many of the challenges related to the changing DRI ecosystem in Canada involve a shift in mindset toward greater openness and collaboration, such as a shift in thinking about “’My data’” to “’Our data,’” from “Priorities of the individual” to “Priorities of the collective,” and from “A ‘fragmented’ DRI ecosystem” to “A ‘distributed’ DRI ecosystem” (CFI 2015).

Although the DRI Strategy does not address open scholarship specifically, it emphasizes the need for improved infrastructure to enable greater data sharing and collaboration, and to improve the discoverability and accessibility of research data.

Works Cited

CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation). 2015. Developing a Digital Research Infrastructure for Canada: The CFI Perspective.

Government of Canada. 2019a. “Digital Research Infrastructure.”

Government of Canada. 2019b. “Questions and Answers.”

Rankin, Rob. “Members Elect Janet Davidson Board Chair, and Peter MacKinnon Vice-Chair.” NDRIO. 11 March 2020.

WestGrid. Westgrid Town Hall: January 31, 2020 [slides]. 2020.

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31 days ago
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Epistemic Humility—Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic

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“Ignorance,” wrote Charles Darwin in 1871, “more frequently
begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Darwin’s insight is worth keeping in mind when dealing with
the current coronavirus crisis. That includes those of us who are behavioral scientists.
Overconfidence—and a lack of epistemic humility more broadly—can cause real

In the middle of a pandemic, knowledge is in short supply. We
don’t know how many people are infected, or how many people will be. We have
much to learn about how to treat the people who are sick—and how to help prevent
infection in those who aren’t. There’s reasonable disagreement on the best
policies to pursue, whether about health care, economics, or supply
distribution. Although scientists worldwide are working hard and in concert to address
these questions, final answers are some ways away.

Another thing that’s in short supply is the realization of how little we know. Even a quick glance at social or traditional media will reveal many people who express themselves with way more confidence than they should. Legal scholar Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution incorrectly claims to have expertise in epidemiology. His predictions were proven false within a week. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who’s reportedly directing the White House response, has no domain-relevant expertise or training—but does not let that fact stop him from contradicting and overruling U.S. health officials. Peter Navarro, White House trade advisor, believes his training in social science gave him all the tools required to assess medical science.

Less spectacular examples of overconfidence abound. Many commentators
speak as though they just know what policy approach is best in the face
of the coronavirus. Nobody is yet in a position to know. This is not to say
that we should postpone decision-making until we know all the facts: decisions
often need to be made with imperfect information. It is to say that we won't
have knowledge about what happened and what worked until after the outbreak is
over and temporary measures lifted.

Frequent expressions of supreme confidence might seem odd in light of our obvious and inevitable ignorance about a new threat. The thing about overconfidence, though, is that it afflicts most of us much of the time.

Frequent expressions of supreme confidence might seem odd in light of our obvious and inevitable ignorance about a new threat. The thing about overconfidence, though, is that it afflicts most of us much of the time. That’s according to cognitive psychologists, who’ve studied the phenomenon systematically for half a century. Overconfidence has been called “the mother of all psychological biases.” The research has led to findings that are at the same time hilarious and depressing. In one classic study, for example, 93 percent of U.S. drivers claimed to be more skillful than the median—which is not possible.

“But surely,” you might object, “overconfidence is only for amateurs—experts would not behave like this.” Sadly, being an expert in some domain does not protect against overconfidence. Some research suggests that the more knowledgeable are more prone to overconfidence. In a famous study of clinical psychologists and psychology students, researchers asked a series of questions about a real person described in psychological literature. As the participants received more and more information about the case, their confidence in their judgment grew—but the quality of their judgment did not. And psychologists with a Ph.D. did no better than the students.

Being a true expert involves not only knowing stuff about the world but also knowing the limits of your knowledge and expertise.

Being a
true expert involves not only knowing stuff about the world but also knowing
the limits of your knowledge and expertise. It requires, as
psychologists say, both cognitive and metacognitive skills. The point is not
that true experts should withhold their beliefs or that they should never speak
with conviction. Some beliefs are better supported by the evidence than others,
after all, and we should not hesitate to say so. The point is that true experts
express themselves with the proper degree of confidence—meaning with a degree
of confidence that’s justified given the evidence.

Compare Epstein, Kushner, and Navarro’s swagger to medical statistician Robert Grant, who tweeted: “I’ve studied this stuff at university, done data analysis for decades, written several NHS guidelines (including one for an infectious disease), and taught it to health professionals. That’s why you don't see me making any coronavirus forecasts.”

The concept of epistemic humility is useful to describe the difference between these two kinds of character. Epistemic humility is an intellectual virtue. It is grounded in the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence. Grant appreciates the extent of our ignorance under these difficult conditions; the other characters don’t. A lack of epistemic humility is a vice—and it can cause massive damage both in our private lives and in public policy.

Calibrating your confidence can be tricky. As Justin Kruger and David Dunning have emphasized, our cognitive and metacognitive skills are intertwined. People who lack the cognitive skills required to perform a task typically also lack the metacognitive skills required to assess their performance. Incompetent people are at a double disadvantage, since they are not only incompetent but also likely unaware of it. This has immediate implications for amateur epidemiologists. If you don’t have the skill set required to do advanced epidemiological modeling yourself, you should assume that you can’t tell good models from bad.

Epistemic humility is an intellectual virtue. It is grounded in the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence.

There has never been a better time to practice the virtue of
epistemic humility. This is particularly true for those of us with some kind of
expertise—perhaps as behavioral scientists—and who want to make ourselves
relevant and useful. Our knowledge and expertise are required to deal with the
challenges ahead. But we’re doing nobody a favor when pretending to know more
than we actually do.

And it’s never been more important to learn to separate the
wheat from the chaff—the experts who offer well-sourced information from the
charlatans who offer little but misdirection. The latter are sadly common, in
part because they are in greater demand on TV and in politics. It can be hard
to tell who’s who. But paying attention to their confidence offers a clue. People who express themselves with
extreme confidence without having access to relevant information and the
experience and training required to process it can safely be classified among
the charlatans until further notice.

People who express themselves with extreme confidence without having access to relevant information and the experience and training required to process it can safely be classified among the charlatans until further notice.

If expertise does not protect against overconfidence, what does? Research in fact suggests one simple thing that everyone can do. It is to consider reasons that you may be wrong. If you want to reduce overconfidence in yourself or others, just ask: What are the reasons to think this claim may be mistaken? Under what conditions would this be wrong? Such questions are difficult, because we are much more used to searching for reasons we are right. But thinking through the ways in which we can fail helps reduce overconfidence and promotes epistemic humility.

Again, it is fine and good to have opinions, and to express them
in public—even with great conviction. The point is that true experts, unlike
charlatans, express themselves in a way that mirrors their limitations. All of
us who want to be taken seriously would do well to demonstrate the virtue of
epistemic humility.

The post Epistemic Humility—Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic appeared first on Behavioral Scientist.

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40 days ago
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Amid a critical shortage, pandemic ventilator inventor makes his design open source

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John Strupat

Retired respiratory therapist John Strupat said he decided to make his design open source after he failed to get any kind of serious consideration to make the life-saving device for Canadian or U.S. governments.

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60 days ago
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Here's how you can help your fellow Quebecers most hurt by COVID-19 restrictions

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food delivery covid-19

Quebecers are being urged to stay in their homes as much as possible — but just because people can’t be physically near one another doesn’t mean they can’t help out in so many ways.

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62 days ago
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Team finds origins for building blocks of life

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A young boy in glasses pokes his head through a sea of red Lego bricks

Researchers have discovered the origins of the protein structures responsible for metabolism.

The simple molecules that powered early life on Earth could serve as chemical signals that NASA could use to search for life on other planets.

The study predicts what the earliest proteins looked like 3.5 billion to 2.5 billion years ago.

The scientists retraced, like a many-thousand-piece puzzle, the evolution of enzymes (proteins) from the present to the deep past. The solution to the puzzle required two missing pieces, and life on Earth could not exist without them. By constructing a network connected by their roles in metabolism, the team discovered the missing pieces.

The fold appears as a twist of blue with a thin strand connected to a pink section and curled green section
This image shows a fold (shape) that may have been one of the earliest proteins in the evolution of metabolism. (Credit: Vikas Nanda/Rutgers)

“We know very little about how life started on our planet. This work allowed us to glimpse deep in time and propose the earliest metabolic proteins,” says coauthor Vikas Nanda, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a resident faculty member at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

“Our predictions will be tested in the laboratory to better understand the origins of life on Earth and to inform how life may originate elsewhere. We are building models of proteins in the lab and testing whether they can trigger reactions critical for early metabolism.”

A team of scientists called ENIGMA (Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors) is conducting the research with a NASA grant and via membership in the NASA Astrobiology Program. The ENIGMA project seeks to reveal the role of the simplest proteins that catalyzed the earliest stages of life.

“We think life was built from very small building blocks and emerged like a Lego set to make cells and more complex organisms like us,” says senior author Paul G. Falkowski, ENIGMA principal investigator and a professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick who leads the Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory.

“We think we have found the building blocks of life—the Lego set that led, ultimately, to the evolution of cells, animals, and plants.”

The team focused on two protein “folds” that are likely the first structures in early metabolism. They are a ferredoxin fold that binds iron-sulfur compounds, and a “Rossmann” fold, which binds nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA and RNA). These are two pieces of the puzzle that must fit in the evolution of life.

Proteins are chains of amino acids and a chain’s 3D path in space is called a fold. Ferredoxins are metals found in modern proteins and shuttle electrons around cells to promote metabolism. Electrons flow through solids, liquids, and gases and power living systems, and the same electrical force must be present in any other planetary system with a chance to support life.

There is evidence the two folds may have shared a common ancestor and, if true, the ancestor may have been the first metabolic enzyme of life.

The research will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Rutgers University

The post Team finds origins for building blocks of life appeared first on Futurity.

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69 days ago
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