March 14, 2009

Experimental evolution of an RNA world

How did the first life on Earth arise? We may never know for sure, but can we at least demonstrate one or more mechanisms that could have led to life as we know it? Not yet, but this week’s paper seems like a significant step towards that goal. “Self-sustained replication of an RNA enzyme” was published in Science by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce.

Most species have protein-based enzymes (running the biochemical reactions needed for growth and reproduction) and DNA-based heredity (passing genetic information to the next generation), with RNA serving various other functions. Under the “RNA-world” hypothesis, however, RNA molecules once served both as enzymes and for heredity. Some viruses use RNA as their hereditary material and some RNA molecules still act as enzymes, with a key role in protein synthesis, for example.

Can we recreate the early RNA world in a laboratory? What is the simplest system that could evolve by natural selection, eventually leading to something that would be universally recognized as alive?

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March 01, 2008

Knowing when not to cheat

This week’s paper is Facultative cheater mutants reveal the genetic complexity of cooperation in social amoebae published in Nature by Lorenzo Santorelli and colleagues at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, both in Texas.

The evolution of cooperation is a central problem in the history of life. Darwin explained how sophisticated adaptations -- “the structure of the beetle which dives through the water… the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze? -- can evolve in a series of small improvements over generations. But some of the major transitions in evolution are harder to explain, because It seems that they should have been opposed, rather than supported, by natural selection. The origin of multicellular life is a good example. It’s not that hard to imagine independent cells working together in loose groups for mutual benefit – huddling together for defense, say – but why would a cell give up the ability to reproduce, as most of the cells in our bodies have done?

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August 03, 2007

Left behind: social amoebae

This week's paper, published in Science (317:679) is "Immune-like phagocyte activity in the social amoeba" by Guokai Chen, Olga Zhuchenko, and Adam Kuspa of the Baylor College of Medicine.

Cells of the social amoeba, Dictyostyleium discoideum forage individually, but eventually group together into a "slug", which crawls through the soil for days before eventually forming a spore-tipped stalk. Previous work with this species has looked at conflicts of interest over which cells have to sacrifice future reproduction (as spores) and become part of the stalk. This week's paper uncovers another example of apparent altruism in Dictyostelium, which may shed light on the evolution of a key part of our immune system.

As a Dictyostelium slug crawls through the soil, some cells are left behind. Are these just random sluggards? Or do they function like human phagocytes, the immune system cells that gobble up bacteria?

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June 27, 2007

Individual and kin selection in legume-rhizobium mutualism

OK, I've been critiquing other people's work for a while. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to critique something I've written. It's the summary for a grant proposal I'm about to submit. It will be reviewed by ecologists and/or evolutionary biologists, but they're not likely to be specialists in legume-rhizobium symbiosis. So if something isn't clear to an intelligent but nonspecialist audience, you'll let me know, right? If you're not all too busy reading the many interesting evolution articles in today's New York Times, that is. By the way, the great Myxococcus xanthus photo in Carl Zimmer's article is from Supriya Kadam, who did her PhD with Greg Velicer and just finished a year as a postdoc in my lab.

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May 18, 2007

Helpful cheaters?

Paul Rainey has a very interesting essay in the April 5 issue of Nature. Much of what we know about "cheating" in bacteria that form floating mats comes from his research, including collaboration with Michael Travisano, recently hired here at University of Minnesota. See my earlier post, "how disturbed are cheaters", for background on this system. Although cheaters that don't invest in the goop that holds floating mats together can result in mats breaking up and sinking, Rainey's new essay suggests that a similar form of cheating may have contributed to the evolution of multicellular life.

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May 14, 2007

Evolution of babysitting in bluebirds

Major transitions in evolution have often involved loss of independence, as discussed last week. Most female bees work to increase their mother’s reproduction, rather than laying eggs themselves. Less extreme examples of helping others reproduce are known in some animals. “Kin selection? favors helping relatives, if the cost of helping is less than the benefit to the one helped, times their relatedness to the helper. This is known as Hamilton’s Rule. As Haldane put it, “I would jump into a river to save two brothers or eight cousins.? “Cost? and “benefit? are measured in number of offspring and “relatedness? is relative to one’s usual competitors. If surrounded by cousins, Hamilton’s Rule would lead to helping only siblings.

For helping behavior to have evolved, there must have been genetic variation in helpfulness. This week’s paper shows that this is still true for western bluebirds in Oregon.

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May 06, 2007

How disturbed are most cheaters, really?

Yesterday, my wife asked, "why are there so many theoretical papers in evolutionary biology?" I suggested one reason may be that evolutionary theory is better developed, in the sense of making accurate predictions, than theory in much of biology. This week's paper, comparing results from an evolution experiment to predictions of a mathematical model, is a good example.

The paper is about the evolution of cooperation. This is a hot topic and also my own area of research. Humans enforce cooperation, to varying extents. For example, we often punish cheaters, those who try to benefit from cooperative activities of others without contributing anything themselves. Human cheaters are mostly pretty stupid -- don't even think about plagiarizing this blog for a term paper! -- but what about cheaters with no brains at all?

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