To thrive in the twenty-first century, can we learn to steer evolution?

Cliff Swallow in flight

Cliff swallow in flight. (Flickr: Don DeBold)

Many of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the next hundred years are biological: dwindling wild lands and disappearing biodiversity, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and emerging new viruses, but also feeding nine billion people or more a healthy diet in a climate-changed world. As Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked—and as this very website’s name proclaims—nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. So are there evolutionary answers to all these biological challenges? According to a big new review article just released online ahead of print in the journal Science, the answer is emphatically yes.

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

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Diversity in STEM: it matters

Diversity in the sciences is a recurrent topic on this blog (and – well – basically everywhere). Scientific American has an excellent overview on what “diversity” is and why it matters to the STEM fields. So whether you think about these issues a lot or a little, I highly recommend reading “Diversity in STEM: What it is and why it matters“.

When we consider scientific research as group problem-solving, instead of the unveiling of individual brilliance, diversity becomes key to excellence. In his book,The Difference, Professor Scott Page lays out a mathematical rationale and logic for diversity. He shows that, when trying to solve complex problems (i.e., the sort of thing scientists are paid to do), progress often results from diverse perspectives. That is, the ability to see the problem differently, not simply “being smart,” often is the key to a breakthrough. As a result, when groups of intelligent individuals are working to solve hard problems, the diversity of the problem solvers matters more than their individual ability. Thus, diversity is not distinct from enhancing overall quality—it is integral to achieving it.


“Biodiversity” is a little different from “diversity in bio” – but still a nice photo, eh?

Why the whale kept its hips

Mystice pelvis (whale).png

A bowhead whale’s highly (but not entirely) reduced pelvis. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to a remarkably good fossil record, it’s now well established whales and dolphins evolved from land mammals, their forelimbs adapting into flippers, and their hind-limbs almost entirely disappearing. If you’d asked me yesterday what’s going on with that almost—the last vestiges of the hip bones that whales retain, which have no legs to support or direct contact with the rest of their skeletons—I’d have told you they were evolutionary leftovers, and probably going to disappear in another million years or so. I think a lot of other evolutionary biologists (those who aren’t whale specialists, anyway) would’ve agreed with me. But it turns out we’d have been wrong.

As Carl Zimmer describes, a paper recently published in the journal Evolution points out that whales’ hips do have one remaining function, an important one—they anchor muscles that control the penis. And that function is under ongoing sexual selection.

The more promiscuous a [whale] species was, the bigger its pelvis bones tended to be. The scientists also found that as whales evolved to become more promiscuous, their pelvic bones changed shape. These changes weren’t part of some general change to their skeleton, however. The ribs near the hips didn’t show the same patterns of size and shape change.

I strongly recommend Zimmer’s whole article, and you can also read the original research article in Evolution.

Lookin’ Good, Ecology!

Did you know that the journal BMC Ecology has an annual photo competition? Harold et al. has recently announced the 2014 winners and the images are incredible! Check out the full, open-access article here (or you can “cheat” and view some of the images as a slideshow here). Lookin’ good, Ecology!


Fig. 3 from Harold et al. Their caption is: “Winner:behavioural and physiological ecology. “Camponotus morosus ant being attacked by a parasitoid phorid fly (Diptera: Phoridae). At the moment of the attack the ants were involved in a intra specific fight between two different ant nest and presumably the fly detected the ants because of the alarm pheromones released during the fight.” Attribution: Bernardo Segura.”



Feeling a little ill? Blame the trees (not just their pollen either)

A fungus called Cryptococcus gattii, has long known to be infective to humans… even though it’s found on trees.

This has particularly been a problem in Southern California, where people have been getting sick from C. gattii for yeas, and no one knew which tree was harboring the fungus. Find out who the culprit is and how they figured it out!