Tag Archives: genomics

Asking for a Skeptic Friend

I sometimes get email from people asking, in one way or another, whether our long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli provides evidence of evolution writ large – new species, new information, or something of that sort. I try to answer these questions by providing some examples of what we’ve seen change, and by putting the LTEE into context. Here’s one such email:

Hi Professor Lenski,

I have a quick question. I’m asking because I am having a discussion with someone who is skeptical of evolution. The question is: Over the 50,000 generations of e-coli has any of the e-coli evolved into something else or is it still e-coli?

I am a non-religious person who likes to think of myself as an adherent to science but I am not sure how to respond to my skeptic-friend.

Thank you!

And here’s my reply:

Hello —-,

50,000 generations, for these bacteria, took place in a matter of ~25 years. They have changed in many (mostly small) ways, and remained the same in many other respects, just as one expects from evolutionary theory. Although these are somewhat technical articles, I have attached 3 PDFs that describe some of the changes that we have seen.

Wiser et al. (2013) document the process of adaptation by natural selection, which has led to the improved competitive fitness of the bacteria relative to their ancestors.

Blount et al. (2012) describe the genetic changes that led one population (out of the 12 in the experiment) to evolve a new capacity to grow on an alternative source of carbon and energy.

Tenaillon et al. (2016) describe changes that have occurred across all 12 populations in their genomes (DNA sequences), which have caused all of them to become more and more dissimilar to their ancestor as time marches on.

Best wishes,

     Richard

Although these articles were written for other scientists, they make three big points that I hope almost anyone with an open mind can understand.

  • We see organisms adapting to their environment, as evidenced by increased competitiveness relative to their ancestors.
  • Against this backdrop of more or less gradual improvement, we occasionally see much bigger changes.
  • And at the level of their genomes, we see the bacteria becoming more and more different from their ancestors.

In these fundamental respects, evolution in these flasks works in much the same way that evolution works in nature. Of course, the scales of time and space are vastly greater in nature than they are in the lab, and natural environments are far more complex and variable than is the simple one in the LTEE. But the core processes of mutation, drift, and natural selection give rise to evolution in the LTEE, just as they do (along with sex and other forms of gene exchange) in nature.

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On the Evolution of Citrate Use

Those who follow the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli know that the most dramatic change we have observed to date is the origin of the new ability to grow on citrate. It’s dramatic for several reasons including the fact (external to the LTEE) that E. coli has been historically defined as a species based in part on its inability to grow on citrate in oxic environments and the fact (internal to the LTEE) that it was so difficult for the bacteria to evolve this ability that only one of the populations did so, and that it took over 30,000 generations even though an abundance of citrate has been present in the medium throughout the LTEE. Even after 64,000 generations, only the Ara–3 population has evolved that new ability.

Zachary Blount, formerly a graduate student and now a postdoc in my lab, has spent the last decade studying the evolution of this population and its new ability. His two first-authored papers in PNAS (2008) and Nature (2012) demonstrated, respectively, that (i) the origin of the ability to grow on citrate in the LTEE was contingent on one or more “potentiating” mutations that happened before the “actualizing” mutation that conferred the new function first appeared, and (ii) the actualizing mutation was a physical rearrangement of the DNA that brought together a structural gene, citT, that encodes a transporter and a previously unconnected regulatory region to generate a new module that caused the phenotypic transition to Cit+. These papers presented and discussed much more than these two points, of course, but they are the key findings. More recently, Zack was a coauthor on a paper in eLife (2015) by Erik Quandt, Jeff Barrick, and others that identified two mutations in the gene for citrate synthase—one that potentiated the evolution of citrate utilization, and another that subsequently refined that new function.

So we were keenly interested when we saw a new paper titled “Rapid evolution of citrate utilization by Escherichia coli by direct selection requires citT and dctA” by Dustin Van Hofwegen, Carolyn Hovde, and Scott Minnich. The paper is posted online as an accepted manuscript by the Journal of Bacteriology. What follows here are some overall impressions of their paper that Zack and I put together. We may follow these impressions later with some further analysis and comments.

* * * * *

Let’s begin by saying that it’s great to see other groups working on interesting systems and problems like the evolution of citrate utilization in E. coli.

Moreover, the actual science that was done and reported looks fine and interesting, though we have a few quibbles with some details that we will overlook for now. By and large, the work confirms many of the findings that were reported in our papers cited above:

(i) the ability to grow on citrate in the presence of oxygen can and does evolve in E. coli (Blount et al., 2008);

(ii) when aerobic growth on citrate evolves, it does not do so quickly and easily (Blount et al., 2008) but instead takes weeks or longer—more on that below;

(iii) all strains that have evolved this new ability have physical rearrangements that involve the citT gene and appear also to involve a so-called “promoter capture” whereby a copy of this transporter-encoding gene acquires a new upstream regulatory region (Blount et al., 2012); and

(iv) genetic context matters—the strain one uses affects the likelihood of evolving the Cit+ function (Blount et al., 2008) and the resulting ability to grow on citrate (Blount et al., 2012; Quandt et al., 2015).

The problem, then, is not with the experiments and data. Rather, the problem is that the results are wrapped in interpretations that are, in our view, flawed and fallacious.

“No new genetic information”

The authors assert repeatedly (last sentence of their Importance statement, and first and last paragraphs of their Discussion) that “no new genetic information evolved.” However, that statement flatly contradicts the fact that in their experiments, and ours, E. coli gained the new ability to grow on citrate in the presence of oxygen. We would further add (which we have not emphasized before) that these Cit+ strains can grow on citrate as a sole carbon source—when E. coli grows anaerobically on citrate, it requires a second substrate for growth in order to use the citrate (a phenomenon called “co-metabolism”).

The claim that “no new genetic information evolved” is based on the fact that the bacteria gained this new ability by rearranging existing structural and regulatory genetic elements. But that’s like saying a new book—say, Darwin’s Origin of Species when it first appeared in 1859—contains no new information, because the text has the same old letters and words that are found in other books.

In an evolutionary context, a genome encodes not just proteins and patterns of expression, but information about the environments where an organism’s ancestors have lived and how to survive and reproduce in those environments by having useful proteins, expressing them under appropriate conditions (but not others), and so on. So when natural selection—that is, differential survival and reproduction—favors bacteria whose genomes have mutations that enable them to grow on citrate, those mutations most certainly provide new and useful information to the bacteria.

That’s how evolution works—it’s not as though new genes and functions somehow appear out of thin air. As the bacterial geneticist and Nobel laureate François Jacob wrote (Science, 1977): “[N]atural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer—a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him, whether it be pieces of string, fragments of wood, or old cardboards; in short, it works like a tinkerer who uses everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.”

To say there’s no new genetic information when a new function has evolved (or even when an existing function has improved) is a red herring that is promulgated by the opponents of evolutionary science. In this regard, it seems relevant to point out that the corresponding author, Scott Minnich, is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and was an expert witness for the losing side that wanted to allow the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution in public schools in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

“Rapid evolution of citrate utilization”

In the title of their paper and throughout, Van Hofwegen et al. emphasize that, in their experiments, E. coli evolved the ability to grow aerobically on citrate much faster than the 30,000 generations and ~15 years that it took in the LTEE. That’s true, but it also obscures three points. First, we already demonstrated in replay experiments that, in the right genetic background and by plating on minimal-citrate agar, Cit+ mutants sometimes arose in a matter of weeks (Blount et al. 2008). Second, rapid evolution of citrate utilization—or any evolution of that function—was not a goal of the LTEE. So while it is interesting that Van Hofwegen et al. have identified genetic contexts and ecological conditions that accelerate the emergence of citrate utilization (as did Blount et al., 2008), that in no way undermines the slowness and rarity of the evolution of this function in the context of the LTEE (or, for that matter, the rarity of Cit+ E. coli in nature and in the lab prior to our work). Third, the fastest time that Van Hofwegen et al. saw for the Cit+ function to emerge was 19 days (from their Table 1), and in most cases it took a month or two. While that’s a lot faster than 15 years, it’s still much longer than typical “direct selections” used by microbiologists where a readily accessible mutation might confer, for example, resistance to an antibiotic after a day or two.

So while we commend the authors’ patience, we do not think the fact that their experiments produced Cit+ bacteria faster than did the LTEE is particularly important, especially since that was not a goal of the LTEE (and since we also produced them much faster in replay experiments). However, in a manner that again suggests an ulterior nonscientific motive, they try to undermine the LTEE as an exemplar of evolution. The final sentence of their paper reads: “A more accurate, albeit controversial, interpretation of the LTEE is that E. coli’s capacity to evolve is more limited than currently assumed.” Alas, their conclusion makes no logical sense. If under the right circumstances the evolution of citrate utilization is more rapid than it is in the LTEE, then that means that E. coli’s capacity to evolve is more powerful—not more limited—than assumed.

“Speciation Event”

To us, one of the most interesting facets of the evolution of the citrate-using E. coli in the LTEE is its implications for our understanding of the evolutionary processes by which new species arise. Part of the reason for this interest—and the one that’s most easily stated in a popular context—is that the inability to grow on citrate is part of the historical definition for E. coli as a species, going back almost a century. But the deeper interest to us lies not in labeling a new species or debating where to draw the line between species—various criteria are used by different scientists, and inevitably there are many cases that lie in grey areas. Rather, as evolutionary biologists, we are most interested in the process of speciation—the ecological and genetic dynamics that lead to changing biological forms that, over time, are more and more like a new species until, eventually, perhaps far in the future, there is no doubt that a new species has evolved.

In short, speciation is not an event. As Ptacek and Hankison (2009, in Evolution: The First Four Billion Years) put it, “[S]peciation is a series of processes, with a beginning stage of initial divergence, a middle stage wherein species-specific characteristics are refined by various forces of evolution, and an end point at which a new species becomes a completely separate evolutionary lineage on its own trajectory of evolutionary change with the potential for extinction or further diversification into new lineages.” We realize that scientists (ourselves included) often use shorthand and jargon instead of writing more carefully and precisely. We have no doubt that one can find solid scientific papers that talk about speciation events; but except for cases that involve hybridization leading to polyploids that are reproductively isolated in a single generation (as sometimes occurs in plants), this is simply an imprecise shorthand.

In our first paper on the citrate-using E. coli that arose in the LTEE, we clearly emphasized that becoming Cit+ was only a first step on the road to possible speciation (Blount et al., 2008). One criterion that many biologists would apply to investigate speciation is whether a later form merely replaced an earlier form (evolution without speciation) or, alternatively, one lineage split into two lineages that then coexisted (incipient speciation). In fact, we showed that, after the new function evolved, the Cit+ and Cit lineages coexisted (and their coexistence was confirmed using genomic data in Blount et al., 2012). We concluded the 2008 paper by asking explicitly: “Will the Cit+ and Cit– lineages eventually become distinct species?” (emphasis added) and discussing how we might assess their ongoing divergence.

By contrast, Van Hofwegen et al. dismiss the idea of speciation out of hand, not only by calling it an event but by treating the issue as though it hinges, literally, on the individual mutations that produced a Cit+ cell. For example, they write: “[B]ecause this adaptation did not generate any new genetic information … generation of E. coli Cit+ phenotypes in our estimation do not warrant consideration as a speciation event.” And in the penultimate sentence of their paper, they say: “[W]e argue that this is not speciation any more than any other regulatory mutant of E. coli.” (We also note that this is a rather bizarre generalization, as though the gain of function that gave access to a new resource is equal in regards to its speciation potential to, say, the loss of regulation of a function that is no longer used by a lineage in its current environment. Both might well be adaptations, but one seems much more likely to begin the process of speciation.)

In conclusion, Van Hofwegen, Hovde, and Minnich have done some interesting experiments that shed further light on the nature of the mutations and ecological conditions that allow E. coli cells to evolve the ability to grow aerobically on citrate, a function that this species cannot ordinarily perform. However, they misunderstand and/or misrepresent the relevance of this system for evolutionary biology in several important respects. 

And the meaning of historical contingency

The paper by Hofwegen et al. is accompanied by a commentary by John Roth and Sophie Maisnier-Patin. Their abstract begins: “Van Hofwegen et al. demonstrate that E. coli rapidly evolves ability to use citrate when long selective periods are provided. This contrasts with the extreme delay (15 years of daily transfers) seen in the long-term evolution experiments of Lenski and coworkers. Their idea of ‘historical contingency’ may require reinterpretation.”

Historical contingency is a complicated notion, but it essentially means that history matters. In Blount et al. (2008), we made it clear what we mean by historical contingency in the context of the evolution of the Cit+ lineage in one of the LTEE populations. Was this an extremely rare event that could have happened at any time? Or did it instead depend on the occurrence of a sequence of events, a particular history, whereby an altered genetic context evolved—a potentiated background—in which this new function could now evolve?

Roth and Maisnier-Patin’s suggestion that our idea of “historical contingency” may require reinterpretation reflects a false dichotomy between historical contingency, on the one hand, and the effects of different selection schemes, on the other. The fact that evolution might be fast and not contingent on genetic background (though the evidence of Van Hofwegen et al. is, at best, ambiguous in this regard) in one set of circumstances has no bearing on whether it is contingent in another set of circumstances. The historical contingency of Cit+ evolution is not mere conjecture. We showed that the evolution of this new function in the LTEE was contingent. In replay experiments, Blount et al. (2008) showed that that the Cit+ trait arises more often in later-generation genetic backgrounds than in the ancestor or early-generation backgrounds. Moreover, Blount et al. (2012) performed genetic manipulations and showed that a high-copy-number plasmid carrying the evolved module that confers the Cit+ function had very different phenotypic effects when put in a Cit clone from the lineage within which Cit+ evolved than when placed in the ancestor or even other late-generation lineages not on the line of descent leading to the emergence of the Cit+ bacteria. In the clone on the line of descent, this module conferred strong, immediate, and consistent growth on citrate. In the other genetic backgrounds, growth on citrate was weak, delayed, and/or inconsistent.

The hypothesis of historical contingency is not mutually exclusive with respect to causal factors of an ecological or genetic nature—it simply says that factors that changed over time were important for the eventual emergence of Cit+. Moreover, historical contingency was invoked and demonstrated in a specific context, namely that of the emergence of Cit+ in the LTEE—it does not mean that the emergence of Cit+ is historically contingent in other experimental contexts, nor for that matter that other changes in the LTEE are historically contingent—in fact, some other evolved changes in the LTEE have been highly predictable and not (or at least not obviously) contingent on prior mutations in the populations (e.g., Woods et al., PNAS, 2006). [For more on historical contingency and the LTEE, you can download a preprint of Zack’s latest paper from his website: Blount, Z. D. A Case Study in Evolutionary Contingency. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.]

Erik Quandt offers this analogy to illustrate our point that contingency depends on context: “It’s kind of like the difference between being an average person attempting to dunk a basketball when all by yourself, with unlimited time, and maybe even with a trampoline versus having to get to the rim in a game with LeBron James and the Cavs playing defense. Just because you can do it by yourself under optimal conditions, does this negate the difficulty of doing it in an NBA game or say anything about the kind of history (training and/or genetics) that you would need for that situation?”

* * * * *

LTEE lines centered on citrate #11

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Representing Science to My Representative

My research is funded by the National Science Foundation, including the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. BEACON is one of a dozen or so NSF Science and Technology Centers. Today, our Representative in the US Congress, Mike Bishop, came to BEACON for 40 minutes to discuss our center—what we do, what impacts our work has, and so forth.

It was something of a “fire hose” for Mr. Bishop, with several presenters trying to convey a lot of information very quickly.  However, he was engaged and asked thoughtful questions.  I think he left with an understanding of the importance of scientific and engineering research, including how fundamental curiosity-driven research can lead to applications.

I had 10 minutes to show him my lab and explain what we do and why.  When I make a short presentation like this one, I often write out a version in advance.  I don’t read it or memorize it by any means. However, writing it out helps get my thoughts in order—removing details that aren’t important, ordering ideas into a narrative, reminding me of what I most want to convey.

I’m sure I was not as clear or coherent as the text that follows.  I offer it here because it conveys the points I tried to make in the few minutes that I had as a representative of science speaking with a representative of the people.

~~~~~~~~~~~

I want to show you one of the experiments in my lab.  We call it the long-term evolution experiment. It’s an unusual experiment because it’s been running for over 27 years.  And we keep it going because it’s been a scientific goldmine leading to new discoveries about how bacteria change over time.

It’s important that we understand bacteria and how they evolve for many reasons. Bacteria are best known because some of them can cause dangerous infections. But many of them protect us against infections—if our guts were not filled with harmless bacteria, then the dangerous ones would have a much easier time getting established in our bodies. Some bacteria also provide nitrogen to plants and perform other essential functions in the environment, including degrading some of the wastes that we produce.  And some bacteria are the workhorses of biotechnology.

To give one example of why bacterial evolution is so important:  If bacteria didn’t evolve, we would have defeated nearly all the pathogenic bacteria on Earth with antibiotics.  But they do evolve and become resistant to our drugs, and so the pharmaceutical industry has to spend billions of dollars trying to keep up with the evolving bacteria and viruses by developing new drugs to treat infections.

It’s possible to see evolution-in-action in bacteria, like we do here, for several reasons.

  • Their populations are huge.  The number of bacteria in just one of these little flasks is comparable to number of people in the United States.
  • They grow really fast.  Every day, there are about 7 generations of bacteria in each of the flasks.  So each day we see the great-great-great-great-great grandkids, so to speak, of the bacteria that were in our flasks yesterday. After 27 years, the experiment has run for over 63,000 generations.
  • And one more important thing about bacteria. We can freeze them and bring them back to life, and so we’ve got a frozen fossil record of the experiment.

When I started the experiment in 1988, there was no human genome project, and not even a single bacterial genome had been sequenced.  Now we go into our freezers and sequence the bacterial genomes to see how their DNA is changing over time.

The work we’ve done in this curiosity-driven experiment has inspired others who are using similar ideas and approaches to understand the rates and mechanisms of how bacteria evolve.

I’ll give two quick examples that show how our NSF-supported fundamental science gets translated into applications that are important for security and health.

First, you remember the anthrax letter attacks on Congress that occurred right after the 9/11 attacks. In the first few days after the anthrax attacks, I was contacted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for advice on how to identify the source of the strain used in that bioterrorism, and how to distinguish it from other related strains. And in the months that followed, I was asked for and provided advice to the FBI and other agencies investigating the attacks. Tracking the source of microbes in outbreaks—whether natural or terroristic in origin—requires understanding how they change over time.

Second, my colleague Prof. Martha Mulks studies bacteria that colonize the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis (CF).  There are about 30,000 people with this disease in the US alone.  It’s an inherited disease that makes people susceptible to lung infections and, unfortunately, those infections kill many kids and young adults with CF.  Some of the bacteria that infect the diseased lungs are not pathogens to most of us—they’re bacteria that live in soil and on plants, but when they get into the lungs of CF patients they evolve and adapt to that new environment. They also evolve resistance to the antibiotics that are meant to get rid of them. How exactly the various bacteria change to become better adapted to the CF lung environment is not known. Luckily, though, Martha Mulks and other foresighted scientists and clinicians have kept frozen samples of these bacteria over the years—just like we’ve done with the long-term experiment I described a moment ago. Now the BEACON Center is supporting work by a graduate student, Elizabeth Baird, who will analyze the DNA from old and new samples and apply some of the same approaches and methods that we’ve used and developed for the laboratory experiment to see how the bacteria have changed—how they have become resistant to antibiotics and otherwise adapted to the environment of the lungs of people who suffer from cystic fibrosis.

The bottom line is that the fundamental, curiosity-driven research that the National Science Foundation supports is also an engine for future applications—often ones that we may not even have dreamed of—as well as a training ground for the talented and dedicated young people who you can see working all around us in this lab and throughout the BEACON Center.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Rep. Mike Bishop (MI-08) and me in the lab.  [Photo: Danielle Whitaker, MSU.]

Rep Mike Bishop and me in lab, 14 Oct 2015

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A Day in the Life of …

Today was a great day – busy and wonderful. Pretty typical, I’m happy to say, though a bit busier than usual but all of it great.

Woke up to beautiful Spring day in East Lansing and walked 1.7 miles to work at MSU.

Did the usual email stuff.

Worked on getting ready for teaching for a class on evolutionary medicine taught by my colleague Jim Smith. Today’s focus will be the paper by Tami Lieberman et al. on the evolution of Burkholderia dolosa in cystic fibrosis patients during an outbreak in Boston. Last night I re-read the paper for the umpteenth time, and I still enjoyed it. Today I organized a series of questions for the students – a very interactive and smart group – around three parts.

Part I: Some background about CF, the inheritance of this disease, the frequency of the disease, how that frequency allows one to estimate the frequency of carriers, why the allele might be so common (not understood), side questions about sickle-cell anemia and why it’s so prevalent, and why, if it’s inherited, the paper we read is all about infections.

Part II: Preparing slides so we could work our way, figure by figure and panel by panel, through all of the main points in Lieberman et al.  (Reminder: Explain to students how scientific papers are often written around figures.  Once the figures and tables are there, then start on the results, etc.)

Part III: Follow up questions about the paper, the system, the interface of epidemiology and evolutionary biology, prospects for the future of this field and the students’ careers (most in this class are premed, many with a research bent), etc. And whatever questions they might want to ask of me.

Sometime in the middle of doing all that: Chatted with second-year grad student Jay Bundy, who is reading some of Mike Travisano’s terrific earlier papers on the LTEE. Specifically, why do we sometimes express fitness as a ratio of growth rates (measured in head-to-head competitions) and sometimes as a difference in growth rates?

Also in the middle of doing all that: Had phone conversation with former Ph.D. student Bob Woods, now also an M.D. specializing in infectious disease, about a faculty job offer he has (congrats, Bob!), some of the issues he needs to clarify or negotiate, and some of the amazing work he’s now doing on the population dynamics and evolution of nasty infections.

Email from grad student Mike Wiser that our paper, submitted to PLOS ONE, has been officially accepted. We had posted a pre-submission version at bioRxiv – now it’s gone through peer-review and revisions and is accepted for publication. Congrats, Mike!

Got a draft of the fourth and final chapter of Caroline Turner’s dissertation. The first three chapters are in great shape. Congrats, Caroline! With teaching looming, I had only time to review the figures, tables, and legends on this one, and made some small suggestions. On to the text tomorrow … It’s a beautiful body of work on two fascinating aspects of the interplay between ecology and evolution that have emerged in the LTEE and another evolution experiment that Caroline performed. Stay tuned for these papers!

Took a phone call from an MSU colleague who has friend with a child in high school who is interested in microbiology, who is visiting MSU, and who wanted to see the lab. Yikes, I gotta run teach! But postdoc Zack Blount kindly agreed to give a guided tour as I headed off to teach.  Thanks, Zack!

Beautiful day continues as I walk to teach in another building. Touch base with Jim Smith about what I plan to cover.

Two straight hours of teaching (one 5-minute break) in an overly hot room. Almost all of it interactive, with me asking questions and the students conferring in small groups and then responding. Very interactive, very bright students! The two hours were nearly up, with little time for my third, post-paper set of questions. But all of the students stayed (despite the beautiful weather, hot room, and the dinner hour at hand) an extra 15-20 minutes for a couple of my questions and some great ones from them about the LTEE and the future prospects for microbial evolution in relation to medicine.

It’s 6:20 pm: I’m mentally exhausted but equally invigorated. Beautiful Spring day continues as I walk home. I’m greeted by our lovely hound, Cleopatra. Exercise and feed her. Then an even more lovely creature, Madeleine, returns home and I greet her.

Check email before dinner. Find that paper with grad student Rohan Maddamsetti and former postdoc Jeff Barrick has been provisionally accepted, pending minor revisions, at Genetics. We posted a pre-submission version of that paper, too, at bioRxiv. Though we still need to do some revisions, I think it’s fair to offer congrats to Rohan and Jeff, too!

Time to crack open a bottle of wine and have some dinner. Fortunately, some of the pre-packaged dinners are pretty tasty and healthy, too, these days ;>)

Refill wine glass. Sit down and start to write a blog on a day in the life of …

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Favorite Examples of Evolution

When the cold bites, When the review stings, When the news is sad, I simply remember these evolving things, And then I don’t feel so bad! — with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein

Over on Twitter, the biology students from George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, Florida, asked me and many others: “What’s your favorite example of evolution?”  There are so many fascinating examples that it’s hard for me to pick just one. So, here are half a dozen examples that are among my favorites.

  • The discovery by Neil Shubin and colleagues of Tiktaalik, an extinct fish (pictured below) from the Devonian that was poised to give rise to terrestrial vertebrates. You can read about this work in Shubin’s award-winning book, Your Inner Fish, which was also made into a PBS show.
  • The discovery by Svante Pääbo and colleagues of the Denisovans, an extinct lineage of humans, based on sequencing a complete genome from the finger bone of a girl who lived tens of thousands of years ago.
  • The analysis by Tami Lieberman, Roy Kishony, and colleagues of the genetic adaptation of an opportunistic species of bacteria to the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis. I’ve blogged about that paper here.
  • Here’s one from the long-term experiment in my own lab — the evolution of the ability to use citrate that arose in just one of the 12 populations and after more than 30,000 generations. There are nice summaries of this work in Carl Zimmer’s blog here and here.
  • A study by Hod Lipson and Jordan Pollack on the evolution of robots. I remember hearing about this paper and being shocked: “Wait a second. Robots are expensive, and most things go extinct during evolution. How could they even afford do this?” I had to read the paper to realize they were evolving virtual robots in a physical simulation of the real world. They then built and tested the winners in the physical world. And indeed, the robots worked as they had evolved to do.
  • Applying the mechanisms of evolution to artificial systems is a fascinating approach useful for both biology and engineering. One of my favorite basic-science uses of this approach was a paper where we used digital organisms – computer programs that self-replicate, mutate, and compete for resources – to show how very complex functions could evolve if simpler functions were favored along the way. These simpler functions provided building blocks for the more complex functions, illustrating how evolution works by tinkering and borrowing already existing structures and functions and using them in new ways. Incidentally, this work involved collaboration between a computer scientist (Charles Ofria), a philosopher (Rob Pennock), a physicist (Chris Adami), and a biologist (me).

Readers: Please feel free to add your own favorite examples of evolution in the comments section below.

[The picture below shows the Tiktaalik fossil discovered by Neil Shubin and colleagues.  It was posted on Wikipedia by Eduard Solà, and it is shown here under the indicated Creative Commons license.] Tiktaalik

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Funding the LTEE—past, present, and future: Questions from Jeremy Fox about the LTEE, part 4

EDIT (23 June 2015): PLOS Biology has published a condensed version of this blog-conversation.

This is the 4th installment in my responses to Jeremy Fox’s questions about the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli. This response addresses his 5th and 6th questions, which are copied below.

 ~~~~~

  • How have you maintained funding for the LTEE over the years, and how hard has it been? The difficulty of sustaining funding for long term work is a common complaint in ecology, and I’m guessing in evolution as well. And of course, if people think that they won’t be able to sustain funding for a long-term project, they’re less likely to start one in the first place. At best, they’ll try to do it by piggybacking short-term studies (or short-term rationales) on the long-term work, so that the long-term work can be sustained via a series of short-term grants. When you first proposed the LTEE to NSF or whoever, presumably you didn’t say “I propose to set up 12 replicate lines of bacteria, keep them going for decades, and see what happens”. And when you went back for your first (or second, or third…) renewal, presumably you still didn’t say “a bunch of cool stuff has happened already, so please give me more money to keep it going, just to see if anything else cool happens.”
  • Related to the previous question: Has it become easier to get funding to keep it going as you’ve gone along? Has it gotten to the point where the experiment (and you?) is widely seen as an “institution”? So that rather than needing to justify it anew every few years, people are basically eager to hand you money to keep it going, no questions asked?

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Past.  All in all, I’ve been very fortunate with funding for my research. My first attempt to get the LTEE funded was rejected, but around that time I received a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that gave me considerable freedom to pursue the research directions that most interested me. Various grants have supported the LTEE since then including, for the past 10 years, an NSF LTREB grant (LTREB stands for long-term research in environmental biology).  LTREB grants are very small, but mine provides core support to keep the lines going.  Other funds are required to do anything more than some basic quality control and assays. My professorship at MSU—named after John Hannah, who was president of MSU for 28 years, about the duration of the LTEE!—has provided discretionary funds that have been invaluable, allowing us to explore new scientific directions and techniques as they become interesting and available, without requiring us to first secure funding. And the graduate students and postdocs in my group have been very talented, and they’ve often been awarded fellowships that fund the essential brain-power and hard work that has made the LTEE so successful.

Present.  I take proposal writing very seriously, always emphasizing both the overarching questions that have been with the LTEE since it began and the specific aims that arise from new discoveries and technical advances. One always has to make the case for why a particular project, individual, or team merits support. So I wouldn’t say it has gotten easier to get funding, especially given the decline in funding rates. But I do sense that reviewers have, on balance, become increasingly excited by the LTEE project over the years, as it has borne a lot of fruit. In fact, the NSF program officer has told me that the LTREB grant will be funded again for the next 5 years. During the pre-proposal phase (yes, a pre-proposal was required for a project that has run for over a quarter century!), the panel summary called the LTEE “this community’s Hubble Telescope.” Now that was certainly gratifying!

Future.  The big challenge going forward will be to secure funds that will allow the LTEE to continue after I’m gone. Many colleagues have told me that the LTEE must continue, and I agree. (I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon, but I think it’s wise to hand off a project sooner rather than wait to the last hour.) I like to call the LTEE the experiment that keeps on giving, so the challenge is to find a way to make that happen.

I realize that not every scientist will have the same good fortune that I’ve had. Indeed, by continuing “someone else’s experiment” a young scientist might even be viewed by some as unoriginal and thus unworthy of the privileges of tenure and funding. To overcome that stigma, I’d like to secure funds to ensure that, not only can the LTEE continue, but that its continuation is rewarding rather than burdensome to future scientists. After all, it comes with its own inherent challenges—including the fact that the populations are tended every day as well as management of the ever-growing collection of frozen samples.

My thinking is that each successive scientist responsible for the LTEE would, ideally, be young enough that he or she could direct the project for 25 years or so, but senior enough to have been promoted and tenured based on his or her independent achievements in a relevant field (evolutionary biology, genomics, microbiology, etc.). Thus, the LTEE would likely continue in parallel with that person’s other research, rather than requiring his or her full effort, just like my team has conducted other research in addition to the LTEE. The goal, then, is to provide the future project leaders with the benefits of continuing the LTEE while relieving them of the most onerous burdens.

So as I’ve said before, “If you know anyone who would like to endow a million-year experiment, have them get in touch with me.”

[This picture shows the Hubble Space Telescope. It was taken on a servicing mission in 1997, and it comes from the NASA website.]

Hubble Telescope

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Questions from Jeremy Fox about the LTEE, part 2

EDIT (23 June 2015): PLOS Biology has published a condensed version of this blog-conversation.

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This is part 2, I guess, of my response to Jeremy Fox from his questions about the LTEE over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

It’s not an answer to his 2nd question, but it’s a partial answer to the first part of his 3rd question? (Have I got you confused already? Me, too.) Well anyhow, Jeremy asked:

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  • Did the LTEE have any hypotheses initially, and if so, how were you going to test them? This question probably just reflects laziness on my part, not having gone back and read the first publications arising from the LTEE, sorry. 🙂 I ask because, with just one treatment and no quantitative a priori model of how the experiment should turn out, it’s not clear to me how it initially could’ve been framed as a hypothesis test. For instance, I don’t see how to frame it as a test of any hypothesis about the interplay of chance and determinism in evolution. It’s hard to imagine getting any result besides some mixture of the two, and there’s no “control” or a priori theoretical expectation to compare that mixture to. Am I being dense here? (in addition to being lazy…)

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Short answer: Yes, the LTEE had many hypotheses, some pretty clear and explicit, some less so. (What, did you think I was swimming completely naked?)

Medium answer that will be fleshed out in later responses: Before we get to specific hypotheses—those formal, testable suppositions and predictions—I like to begin with general questions about how and why things are they way they are. So, what were the questions the LTEE originally set out to answer? (I emphasize “originally” because new or substantially refined questions have arisen over the course of the project, as we’ve answered some questions, made new observations, framed new questions, etc.)

What follows below are three overarching sets of questions that I hoped, long ago, the LTEE could answer, at least in the context of the simple flask-world that it encompassed. I present all three sets of questions  in some of my talks about the LTEE. However, in my talks to broad public audiences – like my Darwin Day talk at the University of Calgary next week – I focus especially on the third set of questions – about the repeatability of evolution – because I think it is the most interesting to people who are not necessarily evolutionary biologists or even scientists, but who are curious about the world in which we live.

Motivating questions for the LTEE

A few more thoughts: The first set of questions, about the dynamics of adaptation, include ones where I had clear  expectations that were testable in a fairly standard hypothesis-driven framework. For example, I was pretty sure we would see the rate of fitness improvement decelerate over time (and it has), and I was also pretty sure we’d see a quasi-step-like dynamic to the early fitness increases (and we did). Nonetheless, these analyses have yielded surprises as well, including evidence (and my new strong conviction) that fitness can increase indefinitely, and essentially without limit, even in a constant environment. In regards to the second set of questions, about the dynamics of genome evolution and their coupling to phenotypic changes–I’m sure these were part of my original thinking, but I will readily admit that I had almost no idea how I would answer them. Hope sprung eternal, I guess; fortunately, wonderful collaborators—like the molecular microbiologist Dom Schneider—and brand new technologies—wow, sequencing entire genomes—saved the LTEE.

 

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