Thursday, May 10, 2018



Some animals have a programmed life of growth, reproduction, and death; mayflies and salmon provide commonly known examples.  Others seem to continue indefinite slow growth after reaching reproductive maturity, crocodiles, some fish, and lobsters are examples.  Warm blooded vertebrates generally cease growth when sexually mature because the growth zones of bones have turned into bone, so growth is limited to adding bulk - something not needed to get through the seasons of reduced food supply now that modern food production and distribution has arrived.

How I Got Interested In The Physiology Of Aging

Along with the natural interest we have about our own life expectancy, I got a boost in my interest during my doctoral research comparing two species of isopods with greatly different life cycles.  The ecological factors and adaptive strategies were understandable in explaining the differences.

Less than ten years later I was involved in incorporating new information about the pogonophora in a textbook revision.  As mentioned in the previous post about Ocean Circulation, the abyssal ones had life cycles several orders of magnitude longer than terrestrial and shallow water organisms.  The most likely cause was an extreme deep-sea pressure affect not likely to be a factor for air-breathing organisms.


A lot has happened to about double the global average life expectancy of new-born babies in the last century.  Probably the greatest factors have been modern medicine, disease control, care of newborns, care of mothers.  Popular papers, magazines, and other sources of health information have been filled with information, much of it worth your time.  There does not appear to be a secret food, exercise, or supplement that will answer all your health needs  A balanced diet with portion control, reasonable activity, and physician recommended additions may be best in conjunction with.

No smoking
     avoids many cancers, emphysema, intolerant non-smokers, and stress on the heart

No, or very moderate alcoholic beverage drinking
     may help us avoid cirrhosis of the liver, deposition of excess abdominal fat, falls, accidents, and DUI citations, need to take vitamins and minerals to replace ones missed by less intake of fruits and vegetables

     in activities and intake of sugars, protein, saturated fat, and total calories - all are better than too much or not enough

Social life, sleep, and mental activity
     yes, and you will probably be happier with your extra years

Pick your parents
      too late, it doesn't matter as much as our environment.  Superb genes will not help if we engage in unnecessary dangerous activity or ignore safety precautions.  But don't lament your poor genes, passing on good behavior can be a factor more important in survival of offspring.


and the mental deterioration we often think comes with old age may be minimized by healthy living and a love for one another.  We can be in great health with only minor accumulations of cholesterol induced deposits in blood vessels, but a sudden episode of extreme exertion could cause a few clumps in blood vessels to break free and plug blood flow to areas of the brain or heart,  If it hits an unused part of the brain it may be no problem.  If it is small enough it may be only a short term minor problem.  But don't take the chance if you have been long retired from vigorous activity.  Take a smaller shovel full of snow, or don't try to keep up with speedsters; pause and enjoy the beauty of the day, and thank God that there was a time when you could do that.


Amino acids are predominately bent in the "l" form and may over time be gradually converted to the "d" form giving rise to no, reduced, or different functionality.  The process is probably gradual but may speed up due to radiation or other factors.

Telomeres that terminate the chromosomes may be reduced each cell division and reduce cell replacement in aging organisms.

Accumulation of waste, or other, products in the cells may reduce or eliminate cell function.  Some organisms such as some bryozoans may dedicate scattered polyps of the colony as storage sites of waste.  We can't do that.  But our kidneys do their best to maintain chemical balance in the blood and eliminate many wastes.  However some pollutants and toxic substances accumulate over time and are poorly eliminated.

Fat soluble contaminants accumulate in body fat as well as the insulating layer of some nerve cell processes of nerves and the brain.  Metallic elements may be retained by combining with body proteins.  The cumulative effect of such things may be intensified by weight loss from disease or dieting.  Impairment of function of organisms can result from injury and scar tissue.

Evolution and grandparents

Multi-generational families are almost a thing of the past.  But they were important in our evolutionary history by
    providing child care for young during our long childhood
    transferring information prior to written and electronic storage and transfer
    source of knowledge and wisdom aiding survival
    being the weak prey picked off by predators so others escape
    monitoring and alerting

Considering genetic values that might not seem to have selective value until well after reproduction has ceased, such as factors that contribute to post-reproductive longevity, natural selection would still be effective.  The genes that may not become active until late in life would be expected to be favored by natural selection as they are almost certain to be more abundant in the reproducing offspring of the ones having genes favorable to aging.  It involves the same principle of group selection enabling sterile worker castes of insect to evolve features beneficial to the colony but only expressed in the sterile caste.

The rapid evolution of increased brain size in humans can probably be accounted for by the benefits of greater memory capacity.  Large brains of whales and elephants, although not disproportionately large as compared to humans, have a value for retention of migration histories and social behaviors beneficial to the groups survival.

Joseph Engemann    Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan      May 10, 2018

Thursday, May 3, 2018



Currents of major impact on the ocean are profoundly influenced by density differences due to salinity and temperature differences.  The heavier water sinks and the lighter water rises.  Surface currents can be wind driven.  Gravity and inertia impact currents.  At the interface of moving currents, or a current and still water, turbulence and mixing can be induced.

Pure water is most dense at about four degrees centigrade.  So progressively warmer water is usual found from near the bottom to near the surface.  Salt concentration of the water may make the temperature stratification vary in other ways.  For example, Mediterranean Sea water entering the Atlantic Ocean near the Straights of Gibraltar sometimes goes to an intermediate depth based on density level of the ocean of the same density, but with different temperature and salinity.

Most of us are familiar with the affect of the Gulf Stream on climate in Europe, by its movement north along the western Atlantic that veers east and provides milder climates to northern Europe.  A similar current affects climates in the north Pacific.  While such currents catch our attention, one of greater consequence has had a profound affect on evolution as it has no doubt persisted and survived assaults by asteroids, volcanic disruptions, continental drift, and variations in solar radiation.  It involves a cycle of circulation that takes ten thousand or more years to complete - from icy polar water settling to abyssal depths of temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical parts of the ocean where it slowly warms and rises until it ultimately mixes with warmer surface waters and completes the cycle by returning to polar regions via currents and evaporation and precipitation.  A pause in polar ice caps can exceed the ten thousand plus year trip from abyss to sea surface.

                                 A PERSISTENT CIRCULATION PATTERN
polar region                                                  temperate - sub-tropical regions

The visual above is not to scale but indicates the North Atlantic pattern of circulation from polar regions on the left to tropical regions on the right.  Similar but variable profiles would be found in the North Pacific and Southern Ocean region of Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.  The flows would diminish and seem to disappear as they meet under tropical waters.

S represents the ocean floor or sediment with a sill regulating flow from (the sometimes ice covered) Arctic Ocean water.  A rise in sea level, or a subsidence of the sill can allow a greater volume of flow to the abyss of the Atlantic.

C represents the cold salt water of high density that sinks to the depths of the ocean of such great volume that the warming water rises slowly, taking ten thousand or more years to mix with the warmer and less dense overlying water.

M represents the oxygen minimum zone separated from W, the warm surface water, by a thinner mixing zone, the thermocline.  The thermocline is identified by rapid change in temperature.  A shallow thermocline may result in more light for photosynthesis penetrating beyond the mixing zone so the oxygen minimum will be somewhat deeper.  Also, storms may produce sufficient turbulence at depths to make the oxygen minimum zone deeper.  The extent of the oxygen minimum zone also responds to organisms living there and bacteria utilizing organic debris settling from the photosynthetic zone near the surface.

W, the warm water is where oxygen is replaced by photosynthesis as well as by diffusion from the atmosphere.


The thickness of the thermocline is greatly affected by wave action.  Calm seas may have a thermocline within a hundred meters of the surface.  Hurricanes and storms can produce turbulence to make the thermocline much deeper and provide a thicker zone of warm water and heat storage that may prolong or increase subsequent storms.


The first major oceanographic expedition occurred from late 1873 to early 1876.  One of its many accomplishments was measuring depths, temperatures, and salinity of the oceans.  I had examined part of one of the fifty some volumes of its researches published later that century while I was teaching a marine biology class about a hundred years after the voyage.  I don't know how many years it took me to realize that the temperature profile that I have crudely illustrated above meant that the presence of oxygen and long residence time of the deep water beneath the thermocline meant either extremely low biological activity or very few organisms.

Subsequent oceanographic work has provided more complete coverage of the oceans and greater precision in measurements without changing the basic importance of the early expedition.

The time factor

Sediment cores show the vast percentage of abyssal sediments accumulate very slowly.  That helped me understand the extreme age of some bottom dwelling animals as indicated by their tubes position in sediments.  The embedding in sediments was inferred from the rarity of finding their posterior ends in dredge samples, absence of tube rings on a posterior branch of the fork of branched tubes, and funnel-like rings on some species with rims oriented toward the anterior end (the exposed tentacle bearing ends giving rise to the common name, beard worms, of the Pogonophora).

My paper describing the evidence for the beard worms extreme age -    Engemann, Joseph G.  1968.  Pogonophora: the oldest living animals?  Pap. Mich. Acad. Sci., Arts, and Letters, 53:105-108.   - was reprinted in the final chapter of -    Engemann, Joseph G., and Robert W. Hegner.  1981.  Invertebrate Zoology, 3rd ed.  Macmillan Publishing Co., New York.  746 pp.  The extreme age concept can be found in several earlier posts of this blog.

The extreme longevity of deep sea animals is part of a circular argument that suggests the slow replacement of the cold deep water of the ocean, which in return, suggests the extreme age of the organisms there.  Fortunately, other evidence is available to augment the invalid circular reasoning.  The most dramatic bit was discovery of unspoiled fruit and sandwich on a lunch recovered from the Alvin submersible research vessel many months after it sank to great depth.  Several studies involving respiratory rates of deep sea organisms show greatly slowed rates compared to comparable organisms of shallow seas.

Evolutionary implications

Some major implications are discussed in numerous past posts.  Two major ones are-
- the error compounded in molecular phylogeny studies (especially establishment of the Ecdysozoa concept), and the unique missing link role that the pogonophorans fulfill.

The permanence of the ocean stratification in tropical through temperate zones has provided stable environments where the extremely slow metabolism resulting from low temperature and immense pressure allowed those that slowly adapted to the abyssal region to survive.  The pogonophorans are one of the most significant, but little known, groups.  Neopilina is an important indicator of molluscan relationships and their annelid ancestry.  Brittle stars are abundant on many areas of the ocean bottom and help us understand the selective pressures giving rise to shallow water relatives.  The coelocanth fish was found at intermediate depths but is a living relative of what is otherwise known from fossils.

Will the enormous area and depth protect marine life there from the assault of a constant flow of debris and chemicals we dump from ships, atmospheric contamination and polluted streams?

Joseph G. Engemann     Emeritus Professor of Biology,  Western Michigan University,  Kalamazoo, Michigan      May 3, 2018

Saturday, April 28, 2018


Global Warming

Environmental changes caused by global warming seem to be more widely accepted by most, even those living in area with colder than usual weather caused by shifting oceanic currents and the anomalies of air currents and shifts in polar air masses.  A recent increase in melting of shelf ice and discharge of cold water was viewed with alarm as something that might be detrimental to life in the surrounding Southern Ocean.


The crustaceans known as krill serve as intermediates in the food chain  by feeding on algae and then being eaten by others in the food chain; even being directly consumed by the largest whales at the top of the food chain, as well as by fish and others.  Some think the biomass of krill is greater than the biomass of any other animal.

Krill have a life cycle of at least two years beginning with eggs released from adults near the surface of water close to the Antarctic ice-covered water.  The eggs sink and hatch as they are carried by currents of near freezing sea water north from their point of origin.  The eggs hatch and the larvae make their way toward somewhat warmer water near the surface that is moving toward Antarctica replacing and then becoming the cold, northward streaming deeper water.  By then, two or more years later, the larvae have grown into adults that lay eggs beginning another generation that repeats the journey north in cold deep water, and back to the southern point of origin.

Ice shelves

The reduction of ice shelves and increasing flows of melt water from the continental margin may cause some reduction in salinity with increase in temperature.  Over the centuries marine life may have experienced similar changes and developed the ability to survive such changes.  Animals dependent on krill may have to adapt to new locations of krill abundance due their changing environment.

Sea level changes

Shelf ice floating on sea water will not change the level when it melts.  If it has built up after resting on the shallow sea bottom it could raise the ocean level.  If ground ice interface on land warms and contributes to glacial flow into the sea more rise would result.  Since the vast amount of ice in Antarctica is under high elevations of ice it is not likely to be rapidly melted.


The general consensus years ago was that the ice cover was immune to major melting.  It now seems that it is a real danger, but of much less magnitude than melting Antarctic ice would represent.

Joe Engemann     Kalamazoo, Michigan    April 28, 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


The Role of Evolution

Evolution may not contribute much to solving the Alzheimer's problems although it must have been involved in the selection of genes and functional aspects responsible.  Whether knowing more about the biochemistry of amyloid and tau proteins involved in the plaques and tangles diagnostic for Alzheimer's will lead to successful treatments is uncertain.

Clues about the disease may come from more primitive animals with smaller and less complicated brains.  Finding such clues may require greater knowledge of the process in our own brains.  The pogonophorans live to extreme ages under very adverse conditions of limited food and are presumably much like the ancestors of the animal line leading to vertebrates.  More recent ancestors are more likely to be of value.  I personally think study of diverse human populations for their diet and health parameters may give the best clues to further research.


Because Alzheimer's and/or senile dementia increase in severity and frequency with advancing age, typically beyond the fertile years, the hereditary component thought to be about 40 percent is only indirectly subject to natural selection.  Selection may differ if societies with multi-generational families are compared with societies of smaller two or three generation families.  Such a comparison is not likely to be informative since the shift has been quite recent.  The stress of dealing with the afflicted versus the wisdom of elders without the disease may contribute to a shift in the gene pool of such groups.

Increasing age seems to enable the disease process to advance, whether by increased deposits in the brain or increased neuron death or impaired function.  Life-style changes may help avert disease progress.  Maintaining a social life, physical and mental activity, getting adequate rest, and good nutrition (moderation in quantities, more fruits and vegetables, and reduced animal fats).  An article by Paula Spencer Scott in the April 8 (2018) edition of Parade is accompanied by a list of suggestions including the value of music.

I'm not very good at doing the suggested changes even though I suspect several deceased relatives had the disease at death 80 or fewer years ago.  I thank my spouse for my being alive with some mental function as a result of her efforts to limit my animal fat intake and increase the vegetarian portion of my diet.

    *     *     *     *

Toxic substances such as DDT and other halogenated hydrocarbons polluting the food chain accumulate in animal fat deposits because they are fat soluble and poorly eliminated in urine,  They may enter the blood stream in greater amounts when fats diminish due to dieting or illness.  At such times the high concentration may cause or increase behavioral aberrations such as depression.  Even people with little fat could experience such problems compounding illness if the little fat they had released its toxic store.
   *     *     *     *

It may be too early to determine if Facebook and Twitter are adequate for the social component of a healthy lifestyle.  I have minimal exposure to both, but maybe if I increase my blogging it will help.

An afterthought on music.  The article referred to above noted singing is supposed to be a good form of music.  Years ago it was common to gather around someone's piano (or other instrument) and sing together.  When my father was doing physical work in his printshop he was typically whistling the same tune over and over.  He was still fairly alert mentally the year he died when he was 96 years old,  Maybe I will whistle more frequently.  Do you think it will help?

Joe Engemann    Kalamazoo, Michigan       April 11, 2018

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Grant for Medical School Research

Medical research at the Dr. Homer Stryker Medical School of Western Michigan University and at its two collaborating teaching hospitals of Borgess Health and Bronson Healthcare will benefit from a two million dollar bequest given by Martha Parfet's estate.  She is a granddaughter of the founder of the Upjohn Company, Dr. W. E. Upjohn.  Kalamazoo has benefited greatly by the generosity of numerous relatives and friends of both of the doctor’s families.

Clinical research will benefit from the bequest, as well as basic research using tissue culture and cells and animals that share functions in ways more accessible than in human subjects.  Such non-clinical studies can speed, reduce cost, and sometimes simplify the discovery of things beneficial in modern medicine.

BACTERIA share many biochemical features of all more advanced organisms.  In particular, they contributed greatly to understanding DNA related details.  Their beneficial roles as well as the diseases some caused will encourage continued searches for new antibiotics when resistance to old ones develop.

The bacteria of today and ourselves share some of our biochemical processes as a result of our common ancestry over two billion years in the past.  As organisms share more recent common ancestry with us, they are expected to share more features with us although they may lose some and gain others unique to themselves and their descendants.

The figure above is just to suggest what happens many times during the ancestral history of organisms.  There is no precision to it, but the internal lines show continuity in one or both branches (multiple branches may also occur at the same time) and it may take very many generations that may include the beginning or end of new or old features.  The short blue line on the right branch could be repeated in many times and places for numerous other extinct groups from the past.

INVERTEBRATE animals range from protozoans and simple sponges to complex ones, some of which, especially the giant squid, reach large size.   Invertebrates began leaving an abundant fossil record of great diversity about 500 million years ago.

VERTEBRATE animals of today share a common ancestry with echinoderms, perhaps lophophorate animals, and a few degenerate annelid-like worms that gave rise to early pre-vertebrate chordates that diverged from the other advanced invertebrates (annelids, mollusks, and arthropods) near the beginning of the Cambrian.  The following figure is intended to represent an educated guess of some of the ancestral tree major relationships.

The tree of life is to graphically show the central role of the annelids leading to the two main branches of coelomate animals (protostomes left, deuterostomes right with the pogonophorans linking them to the other line) with the vertebrates upper right and the arthropods, upper left.  Plants in green are are lower left, and nematodes are on the blue and red left middle main branch.

Why are organisms important in medical research?

1.      Shared system features of physiology, structure, and biochemistry are likely to be most similar when the distances (or perhaps generations) from one group to another along the branches of the ancestral tree of life are shortest (or fewer).

2.      Some organisms have feature comparable in some ways to ours, but in a more accessible or larger form.  For example, the transmission of nerve impulses was made understandable by studying the giant nerve fibers of squids.  Fruit-fly larvae have giant chromosomes that led to some genetic discoveries.

3.      Basic toxicity studies of proposed drugs can be on simple organisms after or in place of initial tissue culture or other studies.  Such tests may be much less costly in time and/or money.

Where should medical research start?

1.      Most likely it will start as you work with a senior medical researcher using you as an assistant performing work for which you are trained.

2.      A first step that should become a habit is studying the research literature in the library, on-line, in appropriate journals, and attending meetings of your research group.  Especially, attending related research being reported at local, state, or national conferences.  Often, verbal presentations of research include clues of value to apply in your research.

How is evolution important in medical research?

It may not always be important to you if you are a specialist is some aspect of a research project.  If you are planning research it may help you select organisms for non-human aspects of research such as in the first list above.  Keep abreast of new developments, even the most unlikely organisms may teach us things of value.

Although animals greatly separated from us on the tree of life may share some identical features with us, they are expected to have greater differences than ones that are more recently separated.  The pogonophorans clue us in on where differences in biology are more likely to be greater in some instances and less in others.

The pogonophorans are a bottleneck where they branch off from the annelids, losing the spiral cleavage of the three big invertebrate groups - the annelids, mollusks, and arthropods – as well as loss of much of the gastrointestinal system and skeletal functions.   In spite of the latter, cartilage of the squid seems indistinguishable from vertebrate cartilage with casual microscopic examination.

Many biochemical features survived the pogonophoran link bottleneck.  Hemoglobin is the blood pigment of vertebrates as well as some invertebrates across the pogonophoran divide.  Aspects of delivery of pituitary hormones in our endocrine system show remarkable similarities in mammals and arthropods.  Peculiar intercalated disks of our heart muscle are also seen in some mollusks.

If you find commonalities of another organism and humans, don’t use the just stated facts as reason to change your experimental animals.  But consider the discussion as an aide to picking new ones if evidence warrants it.  Selective evidence was used to put nematode worms in a major cluster with arthropods when most evidence indicated otherwise.  The post -

- and the post on May 31, 2013 indicate otherwise, Ecdysozoa is not a valid related group.  Both posts provide references supporting that statement.  I write this with hope that it may be of some benefit to the researchers the grant will fund in the university from which, twenty-two years ago, I retired.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan           March 6, 2018

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Evolution: Why God Loves You

You Are Unique

You are the only person occupying your shoes.  Take a walk through the park.  Notice and appreciate the things of beauty.  Hear the songs of birds, see their beautiful color and amazing flight - never smashing into a tree branch.  Look for beauty in insects sipping nectar from beautiful flowers, feeding on leaves of seedlings beneath majestic trees, their forebears.  There is so much more to see and appreciate.

God knows everything about God's creation, from the microscopic to the cosmic.  It is all old stuff to God.  But we are able to appreciate it with awe, wonder, and feelings that express our joy to God.  Don't you get warm feelings when your loved ones are pleasurably moved by such things?

When you have a good story to tell, do you only tell it once?  Most of us enjoy telling it over and over to new listeners.  And a listener may be pleased to hear the same story from others.  The excitement of each grandchild during their early childhood celebrations is always joyful.

There are billions of ways and places to have similar, but unique, experiences foreknown to God.  Share them with others, but don't overdo it, they probably won't have God's infinite capacity for love and empathy.

A unique experience for me that came to mind

Our first year in a new, to us, home, we looked out a window into our back yard.  A large rabbit was grazing on the grass.  About a half-dozen half grown rabbits were cavorting around her.  The most amazing thing was that some leap-frogged over one another several times.  I had never seen that behavior before, nor have I seen it in the thirty years since.  I am almost positive others have seen such behavior.

I am less sure that anyone else believes -

- that some deep sea animals have longevity far beyond that of their shallow water relatives.
- that their environment shaped the pogonophoran transition from nervous system ventral annelid ancestors to nervous system dorsal vertebrate descendants.
- that the deep sea provided areas for the pogonophorans to survive multiple major extinction events making the preceding possible.
- the evolutionary story needs correcting where major changes were based on molecular phylogeny studies using inadequate sample sizes, as indicated in earlier posts of this blog.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan    February 27, 2018

The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, not those of Western Michigan University; however, I am grateful for the opportunity they provided to teach courses and do research leading to my understanding of many of the topics I present.  Did I answer the question why God loves you - God made you using infinite patience and the evolutionary process.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Natural Selection and Creativity

More on Wilson's Creativity

In his interesting presentation of how the human brain and many aspects of social biology came about Wilson contends that "Natural selection as grand master of evolution means that humanity was not planned by any super-intelligence, nor was it guided by any destiny beyond the consequences of our own actions." [page 103 of E. O. Wilson, 2017, The Origins of Creativity, Liveright, New York.]

On page 6, he had said "Scientific explanations of organic life, including human life, routinely entail both proximate and ultimate causes."  He contrasts that to the humanities attempting only proximate explanations and leaving ultimate cause to various entities, without much attention to the why of our existance.

 On page 100 he says "Because of group selection, and its obvious consequences in the evolution of human social behavior, there is reason to suppose that the better angels of our nature need not be drilled into us under the threat of divine retribution, but are instead biologically inherited."  He goes on to further recognize our amazing place in nature.

What Wilson Misses

God, as the Ultimate Cause, can take the chance events of natural selection, that we see as the operative principle of evolution, and use them to produce the remarkable human species.  There are obvious bits and pieces of our evolutionary development based on various pre-human ancestors.  But our disproportionately large brain has the capacity for performance well beyond what most of us achieve.

Wilson sees the humanities, language, and presumably the cumulative written record, as part of the cause of the gulf between us and the rest of the natural living world.  He sees the good that results.  I hope he comes to see that the good is God's results.

It is very difficult, for finite beings such as ourselves, not to underestimate the power, love, and majesty of the one infinite being, God.  It is very much worth the effort to try to know God better.  God already knows and loves each of us more than we do ourselves.  It is awesome to consider the immensity of the universe and amazing diversity of life in a drop of pond water.  I don't think God needs our input on how the world should be run.  But we should make more effort for properly caring for our planet.

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan          February 1, 2017