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Celebrating Black in STEM

I have been very fortunate to know and work with outstanding Black scientists throughout my career.  Here are a few of them.

I met Joe Graves when we were undergraduates at Oberlin College.  We took an evolution course together.  I remember discussing with Joe our mutual fascination with evolution and wondering how we might go about studying it.  I met up again with Joe at UC-Irvine, where we were both conducting evolution experiments—Joe using fruit flies, and me with bacteria.  Joe and I reconnected once more when he and I became founding members of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.  Joe now studies bacterial evolution, and we are becoming scientific collaborators as well.

JoAnn White was an ecologist at UNC, studying the life-history and population dynamics of periodical cicadas.  She served on my doctoral advisory committee and was a highly successful faculty member.  Unfortunately, she left academia, even though she had tenure, because it was too frustrating. I was honored that she asked me to write a reference letter when she moved to a new profession.  But it was a terrible loss for academia to lose such an outstanding scientist and role model as JoAnn White.

Paul Turner was one of my first graduate students.  He joined my lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at UC-Irvine, and he moved with me to MSU, receiving his Ph.D. in 1995.  Paul has impressed me in many ways, not only as a superb scientist and mentor, but also in his upbeat outlook on life.  Somehow he manages to smile and laugh about the challenges of being a departmental chair and interim dean, even while running a lab that conducts ground-breaking research.

Lynette Ekunwe was my lab manager and technician for seven years after I moved to MSU. She helped to sustain the long-term evolution experiment with E. coli after its move from UC-Irvine, and she helped run my lab group as it grew in size. Lynette moved to Jackson State University when her husband, the late Steve Ekunwe, took a faculty position there. After the move, Lynette earned a doctorate in public health, and she now works in the field of epidemiology.

I first met Scott Edwards when he was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. I suspected that he was a rising star, and I was right.  Although Scott and I have not collaborated on actual science, we’ve worked together in other ways.  Scott and I served successive terms as Presidents of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and he has been a valued member of the External Advisory Board for the BEACON Center.

Shenandoah Oden was an undergraduate from Detroit when she joined my lab in the 1990s.  She worked with postdoc Santiago Elena on measuring the fitness effects of random insertion mutations in E. coli, leading to a paper in Genetica. What I remember best about Shenandoah is a question she asked me right after Brendan Bohannan presented his dissertation seminar: “How do scientists come up with the questions they ask?” I told her that was the best question that any student had ever asked me.  It reminded me of how Joe Graves and I, when we were undergrads, wondered how we might study evolution. To Shenandoah, I explained the importance of personal curiosity and mentors in finding questions that are both interesting and answerable.

Marwa AdewaMaia Rowles and Kiyana Weatherspoon were three excellent undergraduate researchers in my lab, all of whom were mentored by Zachary Blount. Maia and Kiyana were coauthors on a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B, which reported the results of what we call the “all-hands project”—one in which a generation of lab members performed a set of parallel assays to measure the subtle changes in fitness in late generations of the long-term evolution experiment with E. coli. Marwa now works in the field of veterinary medical research, while Maia and Kiyana are pursuing careers with a biomedical focus.

Judi Brown Clarke was, until very recently, the Diversity Director for our BEACON Center. In that role she generated and managed many successful programs that introduced hundreds of students at all levels to evolution and provided them with opportunities to engage in scientific research. She also was a great listener and valuable source of advice for many of us when we faced personal challenges and setbacks. An Olympic medalist, Judi recently became the Chief Diversity Officer at Stony Brook University.

I met Jay Bundy in 2013, at the Evolution meeting in Snowbird, Utah.  Who was this student who was asking so many thoughtful, insightful questions of the speakers?  I ran into Jay as we rushed between talks, introduced myself, and learned that he was a masters student at Penn State.  He wasn’t sure if he was interested in microbes, but I encouraged him to think about joining BEACON.  Jay came to MSU, first as a BEACON staff member contributing to education and outreach activities, and then as a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology.  He also contributed to the all-hands project.  However, he switched from studying bacteria to digital organisms, and he’s now performing and analyzing experiments to quantify how the duration of history in an evolving lineage’s previous environment influences its subsequent evolution in a new environment. Stay tuned for Jay’s findings—he’s working on a huge paper. Jay is as deeply thoughtful about science and life as I imagined when I first heard his questions at the Evolution meeting.

I also met Nkrumah Grant in 2013, when he visited MSU while exploring possible graduate programs.  He immediately impressed me with his personal story of overcoming obstacles.  Nkrumah explained to me his love of science as a child, and how he had gotten discouraged and derailed before undertaking a concerted effort to pursue his dream of science and scholarship.  And pursue it he did … and continues to do.  From a G.E.D. to a Ph.D.  Co-author on the all-hands project, co-first-author on a paper just published in eLife, and three more papers posted to bioRxiv in the last few weeks.  He also just defended his dissertation, giving a beautiful public seminar followed by an engaging, collegial exam.  Nkrumah has done all this and more while being a dedicated father and working tirelessly to promote equity and inclusion in science.

Last but not least, Ali Abdel Magid and Jalin Jordan are two of the current generation of superb undergraduate researchers in the lab. Ali is working with Nkrumah on the evolution of bacterial cell size, while Jalin works with Kyle Card on the evolution of antibiotic resistance.  Both Ali and Jalin are also working toward future careers in medicine. This summer, they are reading work that integrates evolution and medicine including the landmark book, Why We Get Sick, by Nesse and Williams, and the path-breaking paper by Tami Lieberman et al. on the evolution of bacteria in the lungs of CF patients.

My science is better, and my life richer, because of all these people, and many more.  How much better science would be, and how much richer all of our lives would be, if we would open more doors, listen more carefully, and live, learn, and work together.

***

After reading a draft of this essay, Nkrumah Grant, Joe Graves, and Jay Bundy all asked me to say more about this:  How can we achieve the aspirations expressed in my closing sentence above? 

I plan to reflect more on their vital question.  In the meantime, I invite readers who have ideas to put them in the comments below.

EDIT: I should also acknowledge two other influences: A high-school teacher, Mrs. Clayton, who taught a Black History class that I took, and who introduced me to Frederick Douglass, whose autobiography I read with awe and admiration.

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Five More Years

The E. coli long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) began in 1988, and it has run for over 32 years with only occasional interruptions. The latest interruption, of course, reflects the temporary closure of my lab during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, one of the advantages of working with bacteria is that we can freeze population samples and later revive them, which will allow us to resume their daily propagation when it is prudent to do so.  Indeed, we’ve frozen samples of all 12 populations throughout the LTEE’s history, allowing “time travel” to measure and analyze their fitness trajectories, genome evolution, historical contingencies, and more.

Even as the experiment is on ice, the lab team continues to analyze recently collected data, prepare papers that report their findings, and make plans for future work. Their analyses use data collected from the LTEE itself, as well as from various experiments spun off from the LTEE.  Nkrumah Grant is writing up analyses of genomic and phenotypic aspects of metabolic evolution in the LTEE populations.  Kyle Card is examining genome sequences for evidence of historical contingencies that influence the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Zachary Blount is comparing the evolution of new populations propagated in citrate-only versus citrate + glucose media. Minako Izutsu is examining the effects of population size on the genetic targets of selection, while Devin Lake is performing numerical simulations to understand the effects of population size on the dynamics of adaptive evolution.  So everyone remains busy and engaged in science, even with the lab temporarily closed.

Today, I’m excited to announce two new developments.  First, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has renewed the grant that supports the LTEE for the next 5 years. This grant enables the continued propagation of the LTEE lines, the storage of frozen samples, and some core analyses of the evolving populations. The grant is funded through the NSF’s Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) Program, which “supports the generation of extended time series of data to address important questions in evolutionary biology, ecology, and ecosystem science.” Thank you to the reviewers and program officers for their endorsement of our research, and to the American public and policy-makers for supporting the NSF’s mission “to promote the progress of science.”

Second, Jeff Barrick joins me as co-PI on this grant for the next 5 years, and I expect he will be the lead PI after that period.  In fact, Jeff and his team will take over the daily propagation of the LTEE populations and storage of the sample collection even before then. I’m not planning to retire during the coming grant period. Instead, this transfer of responsibility is intended to ensure that the LTEE remains in good hands for decades to come. In the meantime, Jeff’s group will conduct some analyses of the LTEE lines even before they take over the daily responsibilities, while my team will continue working on the lines after the handoff occurs.

Several years ago I wrote about the qualifications of scientists who would lead the LTEE into the future: “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 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.”

Jeff is an outstanding young scientist with all of these attributes. Two years ago he was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.  He has expertise in multiple areas relevant to the LTEE including evolution, microbiology, genomics, bioinformatics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and synthetic biology. He directs a substantial team of technicians, postdocs, and graduate students, which will provide ample coverage for the daily LTEE transfers (including weekends and holidays). Last but not least, Jeff has participated in the LTEE and made many contributions to it including:

  • Participated in propagating the LTEE lines and related activities while he was a postdoc in my lab from 2006 to 2010.
  • Authored many papers using samples from the LTEE, including almost all of them that have analyzed genome sequences as well as several recent papers examining the genetic underpinnings of the ability to use citrate that evolved in one lineage.
  • Developed the open-source breseq computational pipeline for comprehensively identifying mutations that distinguish ancestral and evolved genomes.

Someone might reasonably ask if the LTEE will work in the same way when it is moved to another site. The answer is yes: the environment is simple and defined, so it is readily reproduced. Indeed, I moved the LTEE from UC-Irvine to MSU many years ago, the lab has moved between buildings here at MSU, and we’ve shared strains with scientists at many other institutions, where measurements and inferences have been satisfactorily reproducible. As an additional check, Jeff’s team at UT-Austin ran a set of the competition assays that we use to measure the relative fitness of evolved and ancestral bacteria, and we compared the new data to data that we had previously obtained here at MSU. The two datasets agreed well, in line with the inherent measurement noise in assessing relative fitness. Fitness is the most integrative measure of performance of the LTEE populations, and it is potentially sensitive to subtle differences in conditions. These results provide further evidence that, when the time comes, the LTEE can continue its journey of adaptation and innovation in its new home.

Evolve, LTEE, evolve!

LTEE flasks repeating

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We Interrupt this Nasty Virus with Some Good News about Bacteria

Today is the 32nd birthday of the E. coli long-term evolution experiment (LTEE).  I started it on February 24th, 1988, when I was at the University of Califonia, Irvine.

Notebook entry start of LTEEIt also happens to be daily transfer number 11,000 for the experiment.  But wait, you ask: Is 365 x 32 really equal to 11,000?  (Not to mention the complication of leap years.)

LTEE flasks repeating

No!  365 x 32 = 11,680.  We’re almost 2 years behind perfection!  Over the years, we missed daily transfers for various reasons including the fact the experiment was frozen for several months around the time of my move from Irvine to Michigan State University, as well as some missed transfers and various mishaps (including contamination) along the way that have led us to restart the experiment from frozen samples.

Luckily, we don’t have to go back to the beginning–the LTEE wouldn’t have survived if we did. We freeze whole-population samples every 75 days, and those provide the backups that keep us going when needed.

So the LTEE is 32 years old today.  The evolving bacteria lineages, though, are younger, at a little over 30 years (11,000 / 365).  I prefer to think of them as timeless, though … having survived in and adapted to their tiny flask worlds for more than 73,000 generations.

Here’s grad student and lab manager Devin Lake doing today’s transfer.

Devin LTEE 32 years

And here’s Devin & me with the lab notebook. Devin is pointing to today’s entries.

Devin and Rich with LTEE notebook for 32nd birthday

And here’s what we wrote:

LTEE notebook 32nd birthday

For those with pathogens on their mind (and that’s a lot of us, with the new coronavirus spreading), you might wonder: Aren’t E. coli dangerous?  The short answer is only rarely. All of us have harmless or even beneficial strains of E. coli and many other bacterial species in our GI tract. The LTEE uses one of these harmless strains, one that has been studied in many labs for close to a century without problems. There are some strains of E. coli, though, that are nasty, and which are usually acquired by eating contaminated foods.  So wash your raw fruits and vegetables, cook your meats, and don’t worry about the LTEE bacteria … Just wish them a happy birthday today, and many more years of scientific discovery.

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Revisiting Telliamed

I started this blog, Telliamed Revisited, back in August of 2013, after attending a conference at which a colleague emphasized the value of social media in science.

I recall being questioned on Twitter by someone who expressed skepticism whether my blog would last or quickly be dropped. (Hey, I had already been running the LTEE for a quarter of a century at that point, so you’d think I’d get a little slack.) Anyhow, I said I didn’t really know, and that this blog was a personal experiment in communication.  In any case, I’ve now kept it up for six years, but with only occasional posts … about 100 in total so far.

If you want to follow a regular blog that is focused on science and related issues, I highly recommend Dynamic Ecology.  Jeremy Fox, Meg Duffy, and Brian McGill discuss interesting issues multiple times almost every week.  Impressive!

Anyhow, reflecting on my blog experiment as we head into a new decade, I was interested to see which of my posts had been viewed most often.  Here are the top 10:

Here are five more that are among my own favorites, but which didn’t make the top 10:

Also, if you’re wondering about the name of this blog, see the following post:

Last but not least, Happy New Year—and New Decade—to one and all!

Telliamed

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Hat Trick

This past weekend Madeleine and I attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams and several dozen other scholar-patriots “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

It was an especially exciting meeting for us because we got to see three of our dear friends inducted as new members:  Paul Turner and, as International Honorary Members, Valeria Souza and Sebastian Bonhoeffer.  All three of them signed the membership book, putting their “John Hancocks” alongside those of distinguished artists, scientists, scholars, and leaders (including the John Hancock) from the past 239 years, while Madeleine and I celebrated with their spouses and families.

I’ve known Paul, Valeria, and Sebastian for decades.  Paul was a graduate student in my group at UC-Irvine, and then he moved with me to MSU, receiving his PhD in 1995. For his dissertation, Paul studied issues related to vertical and horizontal transmission in bacteria, including the roles of density- and frequency-dependent selection. Paul is a professor at Yale University, where he and his team study the evolution and ecology of viruses, including some that can specifically target antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have been used to cure life-threatening infections.

Valeria was a postdoc in my group, also first at UCI and then again at MSU. She worked with Paul on a fascinating, but challenging, experiment to investigate the effects of horizontal gene transfer on the speed of adaptive evolution in bacteria. Valeria is a professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where she and her group conduct research and work with the local community, governmental agencies, and nonprofits to conserve the Cuatro Cienegas basin, a biologically unique and fragile system of oases in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Sebastian and I met at Oxford University in 1993, where he was a graduate student and I was on sabbatical. We collaborated on a theory project that examined the hypothesis that pathogens with long-lived propagules would evolve to be more virulent. More recently we’ve taught together in the Guarda (Switzerland) summer course on evolutionary biology. Sebastian is a professor at ETH Zurich, where he and his team construct and analyze mathematical models of population dynamics to understand, for example, the pathogenesis and spread of HIV and other viruses.

Besides being creative and talented scientists, Paul, Valeria, and Sebastian are three of the nicest people around. I’ve been incredibly fortunate not only to work with them, but also to know them as close friends.

And there were so many other outstanding inductees, some of whom I’ve also known for many years including microbial ecologist Jo Handelsman (University of Wisconsin), theoretical ecologist Mercedes Pascual (University of Chicago), evolutionary biologist Mark Rausher (Duke University), plant biologist Detlef Weigel (MPI Tubingen), and evolutionary biologist Kelly Zamudio (Cornell University).

Each of the 5 “classes” had a speaker give a short talk to all the inductees and their families. Representing the Biological Sciences, Jo Handelsman gave an impassioned talk “On the importance of soil.” It’s something almost everyone takes for granted, and yet fertile topsoil is incredibly valuable, it’s disappearing in many areas, but it can be preserved and even enhanced with improved agricultural practices. Representing Public Affairs, Business, and Administration, Sherrilyn Ifill (NAACP Legal Defense Fund) gave a clarion call to fix American democracy.

The evening before the induction ceremony there were artistic performances and presentations by several new members including jazz pianist, composer, and singer Patricia Barber.  The morning after the induction included a performance by, and discussion with, the incredible playwright, filmmaker, and actress Anna Deavere Smith, who performed and described how she constructs her amazing one-woman shows.

Throughout all the events, the staff of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences were superbly organized and warmly welcoming.

[Paul Turner’s family in the theater just before he signs his name into the book of members of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences]

Paul's family at AAAS 2019

[Valeria Souza signing the book, with Paul Turner just behind her and waiting his turn]

Valeria signing, Paul just behind, AAA&S 2019

[With Valeria Souza and her family following the induction ceremony]

Valeria and family at AAAS 2019

[Sebastian Bonhoeffer and his wife Hanna (next to me) with Madeleine (next to Sebastian) and me the evening before the induction ceremony]

bonhoeffers-and-lenski-aaas-2019.jpg

[Yours truly along with Mercedes Pascual, Paul Turner, and Sebastian Bonhoeffer]

AAAS 2019 Mercedes, Paul, Sebastian and me

[Sebastian, Paul, Valeria, me, and Luis Eguiarte (Valeria’s husband, and also a superb evolutionary plant biologist]

Sebastian, Paul, Valeria, me, Luis AAA&S 2019

[Paul and I compare our biologically themed ties.]

Paul and me at AAA&S 2019

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Coach Izzo and me

Chalk up another great year for the Michigan State men’s basketball team and coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans were co-champions of the Big10 and won the conference’s grueling tournament. And in the NCAA’s March Madness, they made it all the way to the Final Four, knocking out the top-seeded team in the process.

Being a fan of this team got me thinking: Coach and I have a lot in common. We’ve both been doing our jobs, mostly at MSU, for a long time. Coach Izzo came here as a part-time assistant in 1983, becoming head coach in 1995. I was on the faculty at UC-Irvine starting in 1985, before moving here in 1991.

But the real similarities are deeper and more important:

First and foremost, we’ve both been fortunate to be surrounded by talented and hard-working students who listen to our ideas, experiment with them, develop them in their own ways, and translate them into meaningful outcomes—winning big games and making new discoveries.

That’s not to say there aren’t frustrations along the way: games lost, grants and papers rejected, grinding practice on the court and repetition in the lab, and even occasional conflicts. But our students are usually resilient—they overcome those setbacks and frustrations, and they go on to productive lives as players and coaches, researchers and teachers, and other careers as well.

We also both had mentors who helped us start our own careers. In Coach Izzo’s case, one mentor was Jud Heathcote, the previous head coach who hired him as an assistant. My mentors included my doctoral advisor, Nelson Hairston, and my postdoctoral supervisor, Bruce Levin. Coach Izzo and I also had friends who helped shape our careers early on: Steve Mariucci, who went on to become an NFL coach; and Phil Service, who did important work on life-history evolution.

Coach Izzo and I also both benefitted, I think, from early successes—again, largely due to our students—that helped establish our reputations, allowing us to retain our jobs and thrive by recruiting more talented, hard-working students. For Tom Izzo, it was players like Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, and Mo Peterson who took the Spartans to the Sweet 16 in his 3rd year as head coach and to the Final Four the next year, and who won the 1999-2000 National Championship. For me, the early students included Judy Bouma, Felisa Smith, John Mittler, Mike Travisano, Paul Turner, and Farida Vasi, and postdocs Toai Nguyen and Valeria Souza.

Coach Izzo has also had assistant coaches and staff, who I imagine do a lot of the heavy lifting. While some might eventually become head coaches of their own teams, many others labor in relative obscurity. In a similar vein, I’ve had outstanding lab managers including Sue Simpson, Lynette Ekunwe, and—for over 20 years, before retiring last year—Neerja Hajela.

Coach Izzo and I have both had deep benches—students who helped the team succeed without being in the limelight themselves. For Coach Izzo, they include the walk-ons and others who see limited action in games, but who compete against the starters every day in practice, helping everyone become even better. I think of three undergraduates who joined my lab when it was just getting started in Irvine (all Vietnamese refugees, by the way) who asked if they could work in my lab. Trinh Nguyen, Quang Phan, and Loan Duong prepared media and performed experiments like some incredible three-brained, six-handed machine, setting a high standard for everyone who followed in their footsteps.

Coach Izzo and I are nearly the same age. Retirement might be easier, but neither of us is ready for that. It’s too much fun when you’ve got talent to encourage and guide like Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Aaron Henry—and on my team Jay Bundy, Kyle Card, Nkrumah Grant, Minako Izutsu, and Devin Lake.

Of course, there’s more that Coach Izzo and I have in common—we were lucky to be born into circumstances that allowed us to pursue our dreams without the obstacles that many others face.

Last but not least, Coach Izzo and I have had supportive partners who’ve accepted our peculiar obsessions and the long hours and frequent travel that our work entails.

Go Green! Go Students!!

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Evolution goes viral! (And how real science works)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about a new book by Michael Behe, Darwin Devolves. Behe is a leading proponent of intelligent-design creationism (IDC), which asserts that known processes cannot adequately account for evolution and, therefore, some intelligent agent must be involved in the process. Behe is a professor of biochemistry, which gives him knowledge and credentials that most IDC advocates do not have. However, my posts explain why I think his logic is unsound and his evidence weak and biased.

In brief, Behe argues that random mutation and natural selection are almost entirely degradative forces that break or blunt the various functions encoded by genes, producing short-term advantages that are so pervasive that they prevent constructive adaptations, which he claims are very unlikely to emerge in the way that evolutionary biologists have proposed. Unlike young-Earth creationists, Behe accepts the descent of living species from common ancestors over billions of years. To reconcile these seemingly conflicting views, Behe invokes that an intelligent agent (presumably God, though IDC proponents avoid that word so that their ideas might appear to be scientific) has purposefully guided evolution over its long history by somehow inserting new genetic information into chosen lineages along the way. To make his strange argument, Behe works very, very hard to convince readers that standard evolutionary processes are (i) really, really good at degrading functions, and (ii) really, really bad at producing anything new.

In my first post, I explained that Behe’s arguments confuse and conflate what is easy and commonplace over the short run (i.e., mutations that break or blunt functional genes) with the lasting impacts of less frequent but constructive adaptations (i.e., new functions and subsequent diversification) over the long haul of evolution. My second post examined a case involving polar bears, which Behe highlighted as a compelling example of degradative evolution, but where a careful review of the science suggests that gene function improved. Behe also highlighted results from my lab’s long-term evolution experiment with bacteria, but in my third post I explained that he overstates his case by downplaying or dismissing evidence that runs counter to his argument.

In this post, I’ll discuss an experiment that Behe ignores in Darwin Devolves. (Behe clearly knows the work, because he wrote about it on the Discovery Institute’s anti-evolution blog. But as usual, he spun the story to obscure the problems for his arguments, all the while accusing the scientists who collect data to test hypotheses of spinning the story.) In fact, as I’ll explain, the results also undermine the claims in Behe’s two previous books, Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution, about the supposed shortcomings of evolution.

(Before presenting this experiment, I want to mention briefly two other papers that readers interested in what else Behe missed or downplayed might want to read. First, Rees Kassen posted a preprint of a paper on “Experimental evolution of innovation and novelty.” He reviews empirical evidence and discusses conceptual issues bearing on the origin of new functional abilities observed in many experiments with bacteria and other microbes. Second, Chris Adami, Charles Ofria, Rob Pennock, and I published a paper over 15 years ago that demonstrated the logical fallacy of Behe’s assertions about irreducible complexity. Behe mentions that paper derisively, without addressing its substance in Darwin Devolves, as follows: “A computer simulation of computer program development that ignores biology entirely.” A more accurate statement would have been: “Computer programs can evolve by random mutation and natural selection the ability to perform complex functions that show the concept of irreducible complexity is total nonsense.” The rest of this post is longer than I planned, because I want to provide background for readers who aren’t microbiologists, and because—like so much of science—it’s an interesting story with unexpected twists and turns along the way.)

IV. Phage lambda evolves a new capability without breaking anything

There are a lot of viruses in the world. Fortunately, most of them don’t infect humans. Many of them infect bacteria, as it so happens. In fact, before antibiotics were used as therapeutic agents, there was hope that bacteriophages (“bacteria eaters”), or phages for short, would be useful in treating diseases. And now, with the evolution of pathogenic bacteria that are resistant to many or all available drugs, researchers are reconsidering the possibility of using phages to treat some infections.

My lab is best known for the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli bacteria. But over the years, my students have also performed other experiments with a variety of microbes, including some viruses that infect E. coli. One of those viruses is called lambda. For decades, lambda was probably the most intensively studied virus on the planet—just as E. coli was a model for understanding bacterial genetics and physiology, lambda became a model for understanding viral genetics and infection.

One reason lambda became a hit was because it has an interesting life cycle. After lambda enters a bacterial cell (and assuming the cell lacks some internal defenses), the virus can do one of two things. It can commandeer the host, hijacking the cellular machinery to produce a hundred or so progeny before bursting the host cell and releasing its “babies” to find new cells to infect. Alternatively, the virus’s DNA may be integrated into the host’s chromosome, hiding out and being replicated alongside the host’s genes—though the virus may later exit the chromosome and reactivate its lethal program. (Pretty neat, and a bit scary, right?)

Well, as cool as that is, it’s not what my student Justin Meyer (now on the faculty at UCSD) was studying. He was using a strain of lambda that can’t integrate into the bacterial cell’s chromosome—a successful infection takes only the first route, killing the cell in the course of making more viruses. Justin was studying this simpler virus because we were interested in whether the evolution of the bacterial hosts in response to the presence of lambda virus might depend on what food we gave the bacteria.

Let’s back up and explain why that might matter. Viruses like lambda don’t just glom onto any part of a bacterial cell; instead, they adsorb to specific receptors on the cell’s surface, with a successful attachment triggering the injection of their DNA into the cell. Lambda recognizes a particular cell-surface protein called LamB. (Despite decades of study of the interaction between lambda and E. coli, including experiments that specifically sought to see whether mutants could exploit other receptors, no one had ever seen lambda use any other receptor.) Of course, E. coli doesn’t make LamB for the sake of the virus. The LamB protein is one of several “porin” proteins that E. coli produces, and which serve as channels to allow molecules, like sugars, to cross the outer cell envelope. (Other proteins transport sugars across the inner cell membrane.) LamB, in particular, is a fairly large channel that allows the sugars maltose and maltotriose to enter the cell. Maltose and maltotriose are made of two and three linked glucose molecules, respectively. Glucose, being smaller, can readily enter a cell via smaller channels. When growing on glucose, E. coli cells don’t bother to produce much LamB protein. However, when cells sense that maltose or maltotriose, but not glucose, is present they activate the gene that encodes LamB. In doing so, however, the cells become more vulnerable to lambda, because that protein serves not only to transport these larger sugars but also as the receptor for the virus.

Coming back to Justin Meyer’s research, we wanted to see how different sugars affected the bacteria’s evolutionary response to lambda. (Justin and I have a paper in press comparing outcomes across the glucose, maltose, and maltotriose environments.) We reasoned that, if the bacteria were fed glucose, they could damage or delete the lamB gene that encodes the LamB protein. If the bacteria mutated the LamB protein, then the virus might counter with a mutation that restored their affinity for the mutated protein; but if the bacteria deleted or otherwise destroyed the LamB protein, we reasoned the virus would go extinct.

However, the first experiment using only the glucose treatment played out differently than what we expected—that’s science, and that’s why you do experiments—and it set Justin’s research off in a new direction. Instead of mutating the lamB gene, the bacteria evolved resistance to the virus by mutating another gene, called malT, that encodes a protein that activates the production of LamB. The viruses didn’t go extinct, however, because there was some residual, low-level expression of the LamB protein. That was enough to keep the viruses going, which also meant they could keep evolving.

To make a long story short, after just 8 days, one of six lambda populations evolved the ability to infect malT-mutated cells by attaching to a different surface protein, one called OmpF (short for outer membrane protein F). This evolved lambda virus could now infect E. coli cells through the original receptor, LamB, or this new one, OmpF. It had gained a new functional capability.

To understand this change, Justin sequenced the genome of this virus. He found a total of 5 mutations compared to the lambda virus with which he had begun. All 5 mutations were in the same gene, one that encodes the J protein in the “tail” of the virus that interacts with the cell surface. He also sequenced the J gene for some other viruses isolated from the same population. He found one virus that had 4 of these 5 mutations, but which could not infect cells via the OmpF receptor. Did that mean that only one of the 5 mutations was necessary to evolve this new function?

As it turns out, the answer is no. To better understand what had happened, Justin scaled up his experiments and ran an additional 96 replicates with lambda, E. coli, and glucose. In 24 cases, the viruses evolved the new mode of infection within three weeks. Justin sequenced the J gene from the viruses able to target OmpF in those 24 cases, and in 24 other cases where the virus could still use only the LamB receptor. He found that all 24 with the new capability had at least 4 mutations; these included 2 changes that were identical in all 24 lines, a third that further mutated one of the same codons (sets of 3 DNA bases that specify a particular amino acid to be incorporated into a protein), and another mutation that was always within a span of 11 codons. All of these mutations cause amino-acid substitutions near the end of the J protein, which is known to interact with the LamB receptor. The J protein is over 1100 amino acids in length, and so this concentration and parallelism (repeatability across lineages) is striking and strongly implies that natural selection favored these mutations.

Remember, too, that nothing is broken. These viruses can now use both the original LamB receptor and the alternative OmpF receptor. (This fact was demonstrated by showing that the viruses can grow on two different constructed hosts genotypes, one completing lacking LamB and the other completely lacking OmpF.)

None of the 24 viruses that had not evolved the ability to use the OmpF receptor had all 4 of these mutations. However, three of them shared 3 of the 4 mutations with viruses that had acquired that new ability. And yet, none of those had any capacity to grow on cells that lacked the LamB receptor. In other words, the set of all 4 of these mutations was needed to produce this new ability—no subset could do the job. (We initially lacked one of the four possible viral genotypes having each subset of 3 mutations. Later work confirmed that all four mutations are required.)

At first glance, it seems like none of the viral lineages should have been able to acquire all 4 mutations, at least if you accept the flawed reasoning from Behe’s previous book on The Edge of Evolution. If you need all 4 mutations for the new function, so the thinking goes, and if none of them provide any degree of that function, then you would need all 4 mutations to occur in one lineage by chance, which is extremely unlikely. (How unlikely is difficult to calculate precisely. To get some inkling, none of the 48 sequenced J genes—including both those that did and did not evolve the new capability—had even one synonymous mutation. Synonymous mutations don’t change the amino-acid sequence of an encoded protein, and so they provide a benchmark for the accumulation of selectively neutral mutations.)

And yet, 24 of the 96 lineages did just that—they evolved the new ability, and in just a few weeks time. If you’re into intelligent design, then I guess you’d have to conclude that some purposeful agent was pretty darn interested in helping the viruses vanquish the bacteria. If you’re a scientist, though, you’re trained to think more carefully and look for natural explanations—ones that you can actually test.

So how could 4 mutations arise so quickly in the same lineage? Natural selection. But wait, didn’t Justin find that all 4 of those mutations were required for the virus to exploit the new OmpF receptor? Yes, he did.

Our hypothesis was that the mutations that set the stage for the virus to evolve the ability to target OmpF were beneficial because they improved lambda’s ability to use its original LamB receptor. But wait, that’s the receptor they’ve always used. Shouldn’t they already be perfectly adapted to using that receptor? How can there be room for improvement?

If you’ve read my posts on polar bears and bacteria, you’ve probably got the idea. When the environment changes, all bets are off as to whether a function is optimally tuned to the new conditions. Lambda did not evolve in the same medium where Justin ran his experiments; and while lambda certainly encountered E. coli and the LamB receptor in its history, the cell surfaces the virus had to navigate in nature were more heterogeneous than what they encountered in the lab. In other words, there might well be scope for the viral J protein to become better at targeting the LamB receptor under the new conditions.

To an evolutionary biologist, this hypothesis is so obvious, and the data on the evolution of the J protein sequence so compelling, that it scarcely needs testing. Nonetheless, it’s always good to check one’s reasoning by collecting new data, and another talented student joined the project who did just that. Alita Burmeister (now a postdoc at Yale) competed lambda strains with some (but not all) of the mutations needed to use OmpF against a lambda strain that had none of those mutations. She studied six “intermediate” viruses, each of them isolated from an independent population that later evolved the ability to use OmpF.

Alita ran two sets of competitions between the evolved and ancestral viruses. In one set, the viruses fought over the ancestral bacterial strain; in the other set, they competed for a bacterial strain that had previously coevolved with lambda and become more resistant to infection. Four of the six evolved intermediate viruses outcompeted their ancestor for the naïve bacteria, and all six prevailed when competing for the tough-to-infect coevolved host cells. Alita ran additional experiments showing that the intermediates were better than the ancestral virus at adsorbing to bacterial cells—the precise molecular function that the J protein serves. These results clearly support the hypothesis that the first few mutations in the evolving virus populations improved their ability to infect cells via the LamB receptor.

Natural selection did its thing, in other words, discovering mutations that provided an advantage to the viruses. Some of the resulting viruses—those with certain combinations of three mutations—just happened to be poised in the space of possible genotypes such that a fourth mutation gave them the new capacity to use OmpF.

Now let’s step back and think about what this case says about the validity of the arguments that Behe has made in his three books.

Anybody remember Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box, published in 1996? There, Behe claimed evolution doesn’t work because biological systems exhibit so-called “irreducible complexity,” which he defined as “… a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” Evolution can’t explain these functions, according to Behe, because you need everything in place for the system to work. Strike one! Lambda’s J protein required several well-matched, interacting amino acids to enable infection via the host’s OmpF receptor. Removing any one of them leaves the virus unable to perform that function. (Alas, Behe’s argument wasn’t merely mistaken, it also wasn’t new—since Darwin, and as explained in increasing detail by later biologists, we’ve known that new functions evolve by coopting and modifying genes, proteins, and other structures that previously served one function to perform a new function.)

The Edge of Evolution, Behe’s second book, claimed that evolution has a hard time making multiple constructive changes, implying the odds are heavily stacked against this occurring. Strike two!! Lambda required four constructive changes to gain the ability to use OmpF, yet dozens of populations in tiny flasks managed to do this in just a few weeks. That’s because the intermediate steps were strongly beneficial to the virus, so that each step along the way proceeded far faster than by random mutation alone.

Darwin Devolves says that adaptive evolution can occur, but that it does so overwhelmingly by breaking things. Strike three!!! The viruses that can enter the bacterial cells via the OmpF receptor are not broken. They are still able to infect via the LamB receptor and, in fact, they’re better at doing so then their ancestors in the new environment. (In his blog post after our paper was published in Science, Behe used the same sleight of hand he used to downplay the evolution of the new ability to use citrate in one LTEE population. That is, Behe called lambda’s new ability to infect via the OmpF receptor a modification of function, instead of a gain of function, based on his peculiar definition, whereby a gain of function is claimed to occur only if an entirely new gene “poofs” into existence. However, that’s not the definition of gain-of-function that biologists use, which (as the term implies) means that a new function has arisen. That standard definition aligns with how evolution coopts existing genes, proteins, and other structures to perform new functions. Behe’s peculiar definition is a blatant example of “moving the goalposts” to claim victory.)

As Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and I wrote in our book review, “Ultimately, Darwin Devolves fails to challenge modern evolutionary science because, once again, Behe does not fully engage with it. He misrepresents theory and avoids evidence that challenges him.”

If you’ve followed the logic and evidence in the three systems I’ve written about—polar bears adapting to a new diet, bacteria fine-tuning and even evolving new functions as they adapt to laboratory conditions, and viruses evolving a new port of entry into their hosts—you’ll understand why Behe’s arguments against evolution aren’t taken seriously by the vast majority of biologists. As for Behe’s arguments for intelligent design, they rest on his incredulity about what evolution is able to achieve, and they make no testable predictions about how the designer intervenes in the evolutionary process.

[The images below show infection assays for 4 lambda genotypes on 2 E. coli strains. The dark circles are “plaques”—areas in a dense lawn of bacteria where the cells have been killed by the virus. The viruses (labeled at bottom) include the ancestral lambda virus and 3 evolved genotypes. One bacterial strain expresses the LamB receptor (top row), while the other lacks the gene that encodes LamB (bottom row). All 4 viruses can infect the cells that produce LamB, but only the “EvoC” virus is able to infect the cells without that receptor. Images from Meyer et al., 2012, Science paper.]

Lambda plaque assays

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