Tag Archives: musings on science

63,000 Strong

Ever wonder about those big numbers posted in a window in that tall building on the east side of Farm Lane, across from the entrance to the MSU Dairy Store?

Right now, the digits read 63000. That’s the number of generations in an experiment that’s been running in my lab for over a quarter century.

We call it the LTEE, which stands for the Long-Term Evolution Experiment. There are 12 populations of E. coli bacteria in the experiment, and they all started from the same strain.

Every day—weekends and holidays included—a member of my team takes 1% of the cells in each population and puts them in a flask with fresh food. Over the next 24 hours, the population grows 100-fold and then runs out of food. These dilutions and renewals go on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I hope the experiment will continue long after I’m gone, so that someday someone can write “and century after century.”

Bacteria grow by binary fission: 1 cell makes 2 cells, 2 cells make 4, 4 make 8, etc. So the 100-fold growth in the fresh medium represents about 6.6 doublings, or generations, every day. (There’ve been some interruptions since the LTEE began in 1988, but not many.)

Now consider a bacterial cell that gets a mutation in its DNA that lets it acquire more food and grow a little faster. That cell will leave more descendants than its competitors—that’s adaptation by natural selection. Over time, the bacteria are becoming stronger and fitter in their flask-worlds.

By watching the 12 populations evolve, we can answer questions about the dynamics and repeatability of evolution in a group of organisms—bacteria—that are essential for life on Earth as well as important players in health and disease. We measure the growth rates of the bacteria, we sequence their DNA, and we see just how much evolution can achieve even in short order.

Oh, about the sign. Zachary Blount is a talented postdoc who works on this project, and he likes to have fun with science. He put up the window display which, if you look closely, has a picture of Charles Darwin on the left, “The E. coli Long-Term Evolution Experiment” over the number, and “Generations and Counting” to the right. Every 1,000 generations or so, Zack updates the sign.

63K window

[Photo credit: Zachary D. Blount]

Note:   This piece first appeared at eastlansing.org after an invitation from Alice Dreger to explain the numbers in the window to our community.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Uncategorized

Erdös with a non-kosher side of Bacon

Erdös number

Paul Erdös was a prolific and important mathematician. He also had hundreds of collaborators from around the world who coauthored papers with him.

Years ago, Casper Goffman explained an idea, called the Erdös number, that describes the “collaborative distance” between Erdös and someone else, where that distance is defined by the smallest number of steps based on coauthored papers. Erdös himself has an Erdös number of 0, while the 511 mathematicians who wrote papers with Erdös have an Erdös number of 1. One of these people is Persi Diaconis, a professional magician and Stanford mathematician specializing in probability theory.

Over 9,000 people have Erdös numbers of 2, meaning they wrote a paper with one or more of Erdös’s coauthors but never wrote a paper with Erdös himself.  Two of these people are Berkeley professors Bernd Sturmfels, in the field of algebraic geometry, and Lior Pachter, a computational biologist.  (Sturmfels coauthored three papers with Diaconis, and he wrote other papers with two more people with Erdös numbers of 1.  Pachter wrote several papers with mathematician Daniel Kleitman, an Erdös coauthor.)

In 2007, I coauthored a paper with Pachter and Sturmfels in which we analyzed epistatic interactions to describe the geometric structure of a fitness landscape:

Beerenwinkel, N., L. Pachter, B. Sturmfels, S. F. Elena, and R. E. Lenski. 2007. Analysis of epistatic interactions and fitness landscapes using a new geometric approach. BMC Evolutionary Biology 7:60.

So that paper gives me an Erdös number of 3.

Bacon number

A group of students later came up with the idea of a Bacon number, a Hollywood version of the Erdös number that equals the smallest number of film links separating any other actor from Kevin Bacon. (Bacon had been previously described as the “center of the Hollywood universe” after a 1994 interview in which he said he worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with them, according to Wikipedia.)

So Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of 0, while actors who have appeared in a film with him have Bacon numbers of 1. An actor who appeared in a film with any actors who appeared with Bacon, but not in a film with Bacon himself, have a Bacon number of 2.

Morgan Freeman has a Bacon number of 1 based on a 2013 documentary film called “Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story.” (You missed that one? Me, too.) Well, a couple of weeks ago, I appeared in an episode of the show “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.”

Erdös-Bacon number

Now there’s a really special number called the Erdös-Bacon number, which is the sum of a person’s Erdös and Bacon numbers. Not many people have an Erdös number, and not many have a Bacon number. And very few people have an Erdös-Bacon number because you have to have written a math or science paper and appeared in a film, and of course with known connections to Erdös and Bacon along both paths.

Cornell mathematics professor Steven Strogatz has an Erdös-Bacon number of just 4, having appeared in a TV documentary film with Kevin Bacon called “Connected: The Power of Six Degrees.” Of course, that film is about the very sort of mathematical links we’re talking about here!

So someone just suggested to me that I now have an Erdös-Bacon number of 5. If so, that would put me ahead of such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman! Awesome!!

The fine print

As I was looking into this exciting possibility, I discovered a website called “The Oracle of Bacon.” It seems to be the semi-official arbiter of Bacon numbers, and it says: “We do not consider links through television shows, made-for-tv movies, writers, producers, directors, etc.”

That documentary about Clint Eastwood, with both Morgan Freeman and Kevin Bacon in it, apparently doesn’t qualify.  So Morgan Freeman’s Bacon number rises to 2 (via many different paths through his many major films).

Even worse, though, my Bacon number evaporates entirely, since my link to Kevin Bacon goes through my appearance on a television show with Morgan Freeman.

So there you have it. I have an officially non-kosher Erdös-Bacon number of 5.

I guess I can live with that.

But if Kevin Bacon, Morgan Freeman, or any of their Hollywood friends invites me to appear in a real film, I’ll probably accept!


Note:  It looks like Steven Strogatz’s Erdös-Bacon number of 4 is also compromised because his Bacon number is through a TV movie.  You need to use non-default settings for it to show up on The Oracle of Bacon website.  But maybe it’s less non-kosher, since it was a TV movie, not just a TV show.


Filed under Humor

Tiny Things that Live in Little Bottles

As I mentioned in my previous post, it can be a fun challenge to explain your scientific research to people who aren’t scientists.

A week or so ago I came across a website that challenges you to explain something complicated using only the thousand most commonly used words.

So here’s my effort about our long-term evolution experiment with E. coli:

My team works with really tiny things that live in little bottles. We watch the tiny things change over time – over a really long time. The tiny things that do the best have learned to eat their food faster and faster, before the other guys can eat their lunch, so to say.  Well, the tiny things don’t really learn, but it’s kind of like learning – and even better, the best ones pass along what they learned to their kids.  A really cool guy came up with the idea of how this works more than a hundred years ago. My team’s work shows he got it pretty much right. But there’s a lot of stuff he didn’t know, and we’re figuring that out, too.

Several other biologists followed up including Nicole King, Graham Coop, and Josie Chandler (the links are to the simple-words-only descriptions of their own research).

Give it a try, and add your contributions in the comments below!


Filed under Education, Humor, Science

Through the Wormhole with Science Communication

As a scientist, I spend a lot of my time trying to communicate subtle ideas and complex results to other scientists who, to a first approximation, share my interests and vocabulary. When I’m not doing that, I also spend a fair bit of time teaching students who are learning about science and, in some cases, trying to become scientists.

But it can be fun and interesting to step outside the usual communication channels by trying to explain our scientific research to people who aren’t scientists or students.

Last fall, I was invited to explain our research on the show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The show’s director Tony Lund spoke with me at length by phone, asking questions about scientific concepts, our work, my personal interests, etc.

Based on our conversation, Tony came up with several ideas for scenes to film, both inside and outside the lab. The people in my lab group organized the props and materials that we would need to film the scenes, and several of them also had cameo roles in the various scenes.

Tony then came to MSU, along with veteran cameraman Max Miller. They spent over 12 hours with me, filming scenes in a studio and the lab, and asking countless questions on and off camera. I was impressed by the combination of creativity and attention to detail they brought to this work. For me, it was both exciting and exhausting.

Tony then had to take the hours of film and edit it all down to just a few minutes, while adding interesting visuals and preparing the script for the distinctive style and perspective of the show’s host and narrator, Morgan Freeman.

You can see the fruit of everyone’s labor here, in this four-minute segment: Evolution is Like Poker.

My lab’s portion of the show ran a bit longer than this clip, but this is the bulk of it. A lot of time and effort went into making those few minutes of the show, but I think it was well worth it. I understand the show has over a million viewers, and I hope some of them will have a better understanding of evolution, our place in nature, and the joy of science.

So thanks Tony Lund, Max Miller, Morgan Freeman, Kim Ward in MSU’s communication office, everyone who helped with logistics and production, and all the members of the team, past and present, who have kept the LTEE going … and going … and going.


Filed under Education, Science

Window Dressing

The window to the lab has been updated, courtesy of Zack Blount.

62K window dressing

Comments Off on Window Dressing

Filed under Humor, Science

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


Filed under Education, Science

One of the Challenges—and Privileges—of Working at a Major Research University

Today is going to be difficult, but it should be interesting. There are not one, not two, but three seminars that I really want to—and will (or meant to*)—attend. They are scattered all across campus, with none in my building. I’ll also meet with one of the speakers–though I’d have liked to meet with all three if only I had unlimited time. The seminars are by:

  • Lee Spector, speaking on “The Future of Genetic Programming” for the College of Engineering;
  • Eugene Koonin, speaking on “Viruses and Transposons as Drivers of the Evolution of Life” for the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and
  • J. J. Emerson, speaking on “Evolution and Novelty: Exploring Adaptation from the Perspectives of Experimental Evolution and Population Genomics” for the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Program.

So I won’t get much of my own work done today. That’s one of the challenges—and one of the privileges!—of being at a top university like MSU, which attracts visiting speakers in so many areas that interest me. *End-of-day edit: Did I mention that having so many seminars to attend was a challenge? Ah yes, it’s in the title and at the end. Well, as it so happens, I screwed up reading my schedule today and so only made it to two of the three talks.

[This photo shows the Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus.  It was taken in May 2006 by Jeffness; it is from Wikipedia and shown here under the indicated Creative Commons license.]


Filed under Science