Tag Archives: work-life balance

Time to restart the LTEE, this virus be damned

The LTEE ran for over 32 years and more than 73,000 generations, without missing a beat. Then this stupid coronavirus came along and made me shut down the lab and stop the experiment. Well, I think it’s high time for everyone to return to the lab and get back to work.

We’ve wasted a hell of a lot of time here.  The LTEE lines were frozen on March 9th.  That’s 23 days ago, for crying out loud.  Do you know how many generations have been lost?  With 100-fold daily dilution and regrowth, that’s ~6.7 generations per day.  So we’ve already lost over 150 generations. And with 12 populations that’s a net loss of more than 1,800 generations.

Another way of looking at it is that each population produces around half a billion new cells each day.  So that’s 23 x 12 x 500,000,000 cells that went missing. You get the picture, that’s a sh*t-load (a technical term for those of us who study E. coli) of baby bacteria that never got born!

I’ve gotten in enough trouble already with a certain crowd for our claim to have observed evolution. If they find out we’ve denied these adorable baby bacteria their existence, there’s no telling what letters they might send me.

Plus, speaking as a scientist, I have this premonition that something really big would have happened during those missing generations. I’ve been expecting them to evolve the ability to produce palladium from citrate. They could then use the palladium for cold fusion, which would surely get some attention. Stupid virus!

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s back to work I go.  I sure hope you have a nice day at home.

Calendar April


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We Interrupt This Experiment

Today I made the decision to close the lab and temporarily suspend our experiments, including the LTEE, in light of the expanding SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.

I started to say it was a difficult decision, but really it was not all that difficult.  Several considerations led me to this decision.

1/ The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak appears to be taking off in many countries, including the USA, despite the substantial containment that has been orchestrated in Wuhan and elsewhere in China.

2/ The absence of evidence of any local cases is not as comforting as it might be, given the near-absence of testing here and in most of the USA.

3/ MSU students just returned from spring break today.  Some of the superb undergrads who work in my lab went to places that have confirmed cases. None of the places they went are among the locations with intense outbreaks, but the confirmed cases in at least one location have grown noticeably in the past week. They also flew on planes to and from their vacations.

4/ As a team, we’re connected not only to one another, but also to people who are health-care workers and others with increased vulnerabilities to infections. (Not to mention that I’m over 60 …) When you think about it, pretty much everyone has those connections.

5/ We’re very lucky because our work is easy to stop and re-start. Our study organisms can be frozen away and revived whenever we see fit.  In the meantime, everyone has classes to take, papers to read and write, data to analyze, etc.  And a little extra time, hopefully, to reflect on and maintain the health and well-being of our friends, families, and selves.  So, we will all be busy, but doing things a bit differently than we had planned.

6/ As we freeze away the long-term lines, the lab notebook will record:  “On this day, the LTEE was temporarily halted and frozen down for the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.”

Hopefully, some future historian of science will look back on today’s entry and say: “What the hell was that all about?”

Freezing LTEE for SARS

[Devin Lake putting the LTEE populations into the ultra-low freezer, where they will stay until they are called back into action … evolution in action.]


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The Lenski Lab Health Plan for the New Coronavirus Outbreak

The future is unknown, as it always is.  We do know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is spreading around the globe, but we don’t know how many people will be infected.  Some experts are predicting that something like half of the adult population will be infected, although not all at the same time.  We also know that many cases are relatively mild (like a cold or the usual flu), and some infections may be asymptomatic. However, we also know that some other cases—perhaps 20% or so—are very serious, and some of those are life-threatening.

See MSU’s coronavirus page for University policy, information, and advice.

What can we do, as individuals and a lab group, to protect ourselves, our families, each other, our communities, and our research?  Here are my current thoughts, with an emphasis on activities related to our laboratory and our academic setting.

1/ If you haven’t done so already, get your flu shot. It won’t protect against the coronavirus, and it doesn’t provide perfect protection against the influenza virus, but it will reduce the chance of getting the flu (and save health-care resources for others in need).

2/ Make sure you and your household are prepared for a period of self-isolation or quarantine lasting 2 weeks, or perhaps longer.  This means stocking up on food staples and, importantly, any medicines that you and your household need.  For medicines, I suggest having at least a full month’s supply, maybe longer, in case there are disruptions to availability.  Talk to your doctor about extending prescriptions or any other special needs you might have.

3/ If you develop symptoms of a cold or flu—even mild symptoms—please stay at home and don’t come into the office or the lab.  We don’t want you to spread the infection.  Just email the group list to let us know what’s up, and work from home on your writing and reading if you feel up to it. You won’t impress me, or anyone, by trying to work while you’re sick.

4/ If a member of your household becomes ill, see and follow point 3 above.

5/ Let’s all start practicing more restrained physical interactions, and thus set good examples not only among ourselves but also for our colleagues and friends. That means skipping hugs and handshakes, for the time being.  Instead, you might put your own hands together and bow your head slightly to greet or congratulate someone. Or maybe an elbow bump, if you really must make contact.  Foot bumps are apparently another new thing, too.

6/ Be prepared to stop your lab work on short notice.  In the meantime, I guess March might be a good time to get a week-long or two-week experiment done, before the epidemic grows too large (if it does).  However, I suggest holding off, for the time being, on any plan to start a large and/or long experiment.

7/ Speaking of long experiments, you will recall that we have a certain long-term experiment in our lab.  The LTEE will soon hit 73,500 generations, at which time the samples will be frozen as usual.  After that date, I’d like population samples to be frozen more often, say, every 2 or 3 weeks.  Just freeze away a copy of each population (no need to plate cells)—basically, so we have samples to restart in the event that people get sick, or if the university should at some point curtail certain activities for a while.

8/ Be prepared to cancel your attendance at scientific conferences and other academic or social events as new information arises. Even if an event organizer decides to push ahead, you don’t have to go if you feel it is risky for you personally. As an aside, I recommend delaying purchases of airfares until an event is closer in time, given the current uncertainty.  (Refundable tickets on most airlines are very expensive, and other tickets have restrictions.)  Hotel reservations can usually be cancelled on shorter notice (a day or week, check to be sure), but not if they were booked through a discounter.

9/ And maybe the hardest advice of all is to practice good personal hygiene. Cover your mouth with your forearm or the inside of your elbow when you cough or sneeze unexpectedly.  (If you know you’re sick, then you should have disposable tissues handy. Use those to cover your nose and mouth completely, and dispose of a tissue after one use.) If you find yourself coughing or sneezing repeatedly, see point 3 above. Wash your hands thoroughly [Click that link, with the sound on, and stay for the end!] after you’ve touched shared surfaces, especially before eating. And most difficult of all, avoid touching your own face.  This coronavirus can survive for hours as tiny droplets on surfaces, which we may inadvertently touch (“fomite transmission”). Then, when we touch our mouth, nose, or eyes, we can infect ourselves.

10/ ADDED: Follow the news, and get your news from trustworthy, reliable sources. If it becomes clear that infections are spreading locally, or even if you are just concerned about that possibility, then avoid crowded public venues. (But this does not mean that you should follow the news obsessively, as that can be exhausting. h/t Carl Bergstrom.)

11/ ADDED: If you do isolate yourself, whether because of illness or concern, make sure to maintain frequent social contact with your family, friends, and the lab via phone, email, or whatever works best for you. Don’t let physical isolation and loneliness make you feel miserable. We are all stronger together, even if we might have to be physically apart.

12/ ADDED: Please read these Words of Wisdom, regarding preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks, from Michael Leavitt, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services.

13/ ADDED:  This one is for those of you in science or other relevant scholarly fields.  Do you have data in your lab notebooks and/or on computers accessible only in the lab?  Are the datasets ones that you might need for your analyses and writing if, say, you end up confined at home for a few weeks?  If so, I recommend that you copy it (but only if it’s allowed in the case of certain types of sensitive data!) by scanning it and/or copying it to your personal computer. That way, you can use it while working from home if you decide, or are required, to do so.

Take care everyone.  Please let me know of any errors, omissions, and practical suggestions.





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That Didn’t Last Long

My previous post did not age well.  After a gorgeous start, Autumn has come to a bitter end here in East Lansing—many weeks before the official start of Winter.

We had several inches of snow two nights ago, followed by extreme cold last night.

It is quite beautiful, though, as you can see in the first picture below.  But many of the local sidewalks are a hazardous mess—ice interspersed with rock-hard lumps of snow—and the snow-covered lawns are now getting covered with leaves that hadn’t yet fallen, as you can see in the second picture.

Snow in November 2019

Leaves on top of early snow

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Autumn at MSU

A lovely autumn morning in East Lansing.

Maple MSU Oct 2019Red Cedar foliage Oct 2019

Next week I’ ll get to discuss a couple of my all-time favorite papers – Chao and Levin on colicins, and Lieberman et al. on parallel evolution in an epidemiological setting – with graduate students in our Integrative Microbial Biology course.

That is all.  Happy Friday, and have a great weekend.

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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]


[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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Half Life

Today marks a unique day for the LTEE and me.

The LTEE started on February 17, 1988.  That was 11,517 days ago.

I was born on August 13, 1956.  That was 23,034 days ago.

That means that the LTEE is now half as old as I am.

To put it another way, I’ve spent half a lifetime on the LTEE.

Well, that’s not quite the right way to put it, since I’ve done a few other things during that time. Like raising a family—with a lot of help.  And a lot of other science, also with a lot of help, not to mention all the work of so many students and collaborators on the LTEE itself.

And unlike a radioactive isotope, the bacteria haven’t been decaying—they’ve been getting better and better at living in their flask-worlds.

My hope is that this long-term evolution experiment will continue for a long time. A very long time. For a lot longer than my own lifetime.

Here are a couple of photos from around the time the LTEE started. The first one shows Madeleine and me camping near Joshua Tree National Park in the summer of 1987, at the annual retreat of the UC-Irvine EEB department, and only a couple months before the birth of our youngest. The next one shows me snuggling with my three kids in early 1989.


How time flies. Luckily, though, I get to snuggle with my three grandkids now.

Bacterial generations. Human generations. Growing, evolving, and learning.






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