Pizza: the fourth domain of life

Pizza has always been a rather neglected research object. Scientists from MDC and Mainz University have collected data on the evolutionary development of pizza in a European field study. The results and the first evolutionary tree of pizza worldwide has been published in the "Journal of Improbable Research"

The evolution of pizza from an ancestral form has long puzzled scientists. Now researchers from the MDC and the University of Mainz have now published the first data on what they call the "fourth domain of life," which has been generally shunned by the scientific community. Based on field studies conducted throughout Europe, they conclude that modern pizzas have not evolved very far from their original three-layer body plan of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese. An analysis of more specialized features such as salami nevertheless permitted the scientists to produce the first evolutionary tree of pizza species, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Improbable Research (Vol. 24, No. 1, pp 8-14).

"In some ways pizza resembles a simple cell, with a crusty membrane and diverse organelles," the scientists write. The lack of a skeleton means that there are few fossil remains, one reason for its neglect on the part of the paleontology community. "Our research indicates that pizza represents a fourth domain of life, somewhere between a cell, a symbiotic community, and an entire ecosphere," says Russ Hodge, first author of the publication. "In any case it has unique features that clearly distinguish it from Archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes."

Extreme environmental fluctuations

Why has the scientific community neglected pizza? One possibility, the authors suggest, is a conspiracy on the part of commercial interests; recognizing it as an independent life form would probably trigger ethical concerns and stringent regulations. Another issue is the difficulty of maintaining pizza in lab cultures; it tends to spontaneously disappear, for reasons that are poorly understood.

The first evolutionary tree of pizza required an intensive bioinformatic analysis carried out by former MDC group leader Miguel Andrade, now at the University of Mainz, and postdoctoral fellow Pablo Pier Munoz. They collected data on 58 types of pizza obtained from about 100 Italian restaurants across Europe.

Pizza never diverged very far from its original form, the scientists conclude, because its membrane never closed around its three layers. This left its tissues exposed to extreme environmental fluctuations during its embryonic development (at room temperature), maturation (ca. 220 degrees) and a phase they call "decline" (sometimes under freezing conditions).

Contributions to the evolution of human intelligence and society?

Many questions remain open. The subject is worth pursuing, the authors maintain, because while the domestication of pizza simplified its biology through its reliance on humans, it had features that may have played an important role in the rise of social structures in our species. "Who knows? Pizza, rather than eukaryotes, might have eventually produced the dominant intelligent species on Earth.”

On the March 19, 1 pm, the editor of the „Journal of Improbable Research", Marc Abrahams, is coming to the MDC. Everybody is cordially invited to pizza before the lecture and the talk!