Researchers in Britain have been credited with cracking the age-old conundrum about the chicken and the egg. But are they right?
After the publication of the rather dry-sounding scientific paper, “Structural Control of Crystal Nuclei by an Eggshell Protein,” press headlines proclaimed the answer was… the chicken.
However, one of the paper’s lead authors, Colin Freeman, from the University of Sheffield in northern England, told CNN that the result was not as conclusive as it seemed.
“I would argue that the concept of an eggshell came about way before the chicken, it’s dinosaur or even pre-dinosaur thing. That’s something to talk to an evolutionary biologist about probably,” he said.
So how did a paper about “crystal nuclei” become proof that the chicken pre-dated the egg?
Freeman and his team, which included colleagues from the University of Warwick, were researching a protein found in eggshells called ovocledidin-17. It is also found in chickens’ ovaries, but until the team’s research its purpose was not clear.
Using Britain’s national supercomputer, a machine dubbed HECToR based in Edinburgh, Scotland, they were able to simulate the process of biomineralization, or the production of minerals or solid materials inside organisms.
It was a world first and revealed that one potential purpose of the protein ovocledidin-17 is to speed up the production of eggshell within the chicken so that in 24 hours an egg is ready to be laid.
“What we have really identified is that the protein seems to accelerate the crystallization process so it can make that eggshell appear far quicker. In simple terms it accelerates calcite formation,” Freeman said.
They also found that the egg can’t be produced without the protein ovocledidin-17 in the chickens’ ovaries, so that means that the chicken must have come first. Right?
“Obviously, it’s not really what we were trying to get out of our simulations, but it’s an interesting question isn’t it?” Freeman said.
Rather than putting an end to bickering over the true order of the egg, the researchers were trying to understand more about how shell is formed so that they can apply their findings in other disciplines, including medicine.
“The quote my colleague John Harding always says is, ‘could we ever be as clever as algae?'” Freeman said.
“They produce these wonderful shells that protect them in the North Sea. That crystal structure is far in advance of anything that we as humans can create in the lab,” Freeman said, adding, “We can’t make a human skeleton in the lab…”
Perhaps one day they will be able to. And perhaps one day someone will conclusively put an end to the argument — was it the chicken or the egg?