Saturday, May 20, 2017

Denis Noble writes about junk DNA

I have read Dance to the Tune of Life. It's a very confusing book for several reasons. Denis Noble has a very different perspective on evolution and what evolutionary theory needs to accomplish. He thinks that life is characterized by something he calls "Biological Relativity." I don't disagree. He also thinks that evolutionary theory needs to incorporate everything that has ever happened in the history of life. That's where we part company.

I'm working slowly on a book about genomes and junk DNA so I was anxious to see how Noble deals with that subject. I tend to judge the quality of books and articles by the way they interpret the controversy over junk DNA. Here's the first mention of junk DNA from page 89. He begins by saying that it's difficult to explain development and the diversity of tissues in multicellular organisms. He continues with,

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jonathan Wells illustrates zombie science by revisiting junk DNA

Jonathan Wells has written a new book (2017) called Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution. He revisits his famous Icons of Evolution from 2000 and tries to show that nothing has changed in 17 years.

I wrote a book in 2000 about ten images images, ten "icons of evolution," that did not fit the evidence and were empirically dead. They should have been buried, but they are still with us, haunting our science classrooms and stalking our children. They are part of what I call zombie science.
I won't bore you with the details. The icons fall into two categories: (1) those that were meaningless and/or trivial in 2000 and remain so today, and (2) those that Wells misunderstood in 2000 and are still misunderstood by creationists today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"The Perils of Public Outreach"

Julia Shaw is a forensic psychologist. She is currently a senior lecturer in criminology at the London South Bank University (London, UK). Shaw is concerned that we are creating a culture where public outreach is being unfairly attacked. Read her Scientific American post at: The Perils of Public Outreach.

Shaw's point is rather interesting. She believes that scientists who participate in public outreach are being unfairly criticized. Let's look closely at her argument.
What scientists write in academic publications is generally intended for a scientific community, full of nuance and precise language. Instead, what scientists say and write in public forums is intended for lay audiences, almost invariably losing nuance but gaining impact and social relevance. This makes statements made in public forums particularly ripe for attack.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Debating philosophers: Pierrick Bourrat responds to my criticism of his paper

I recently criticized a paper by Lu and Bourrat on the extended evolutionary synthesis [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. Pierrick Bourrat responds in this guest post.

by Pierrick Bourrat
Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

Both Qiaoying Lu and I are grateful to Professor Moran for the copious attention he has bestowed on our paper. We are early career researchers and didn’t expect our paper to receive so much attention from a senior academic in a public forum. Moran claims that our work is out of touch with science (and more generally works in philosophy of biology), that the paper is weakly argued and that some of what we write is false. But in the end, he puts forward a similar position to ours.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Debating philosophers: Epigenetics

Qiaoying Lu and Pierrick Bourrat are philosophers in Australia.1 Their research interests include evolutionary theory and they have taken an interest in the current debate over extending evolutionary theory. That debate has been promoted by a small group of scientists who, by and large, are not experts in evolution. They claim that current evolutionary theory—which they define incorrectly as the 1960s version of the Modern Synthesis—needs to be overthrown or extended by including things like epigenetics, niche construction, developmental biology, and plasticity [New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: The Program].

Lu and Bourrat have focused on epigenetics in their recent paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. They hope to reach an accommodation by re-defining the evolutionary gene as: "any physical structure that causes a heritable variation." Then they go on to say that, "we define the phenotype of an evolutionary gene as everything that the gene makes a difference to when compared to another gene."

By doing this, they claim that epigenetic changes (e.g. transient methylation) fall with the new definition. Therefore, epigenetics doesn't really represent a challenge to evolutionary theory. They explain it like this ....

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Debating philosophers: The molecular gene

This is my fifth post on the Lu and Bourrat paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. The authors are attempting to justify the inclusion of epigenetics into current evolutionary theory by re-defining the concept of "gene," specifically the evolutionary gene concept. So far, I've discussed their understanding of current evolutionary theory and why I think it is flawed [Debating philosophers: The Modern Synthesis]. I described their view of "genes" and pointed out the confusion between "genes" and "alleles" and why I think "alleles" is the better term [Debating philosophers: The difference between genes and alleles]. In my last post I discussed their definition of the evolutionary gene and why it is too adaptationist to serve a useful function [Debating philosophers: The evolutionary gene].

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Debating philosophers: The evolutionary gene

This is the forth post on the Lu and Bourrat paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. The philosophers are attempting to redefine the word "gene" in order to make epigenetics compatible with current evolutionary theory.

I define a gene in the following way: "A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product" [What Is a Gene?]. This is a biochemical/molecular definition and it's not the same as the definition used in traditional evolution.

Lu and Bourrat discuss the history of the evolutionary gene and conclude,

Debating philosophers: The difference between genes and alleles

This is my third post on the Lu and Bourrat (2017) paper [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. Part of their argument is to establish that modern evolutionary theory is a gene-centric theory. They need to make this connection because they are about to re-define the word "gene" in order to accommodate epigenetics.

In my last post I referred to their defense of the Modern Synthesis and quoted them as saying that the major tenets of the Modern Synthesis (MS) are still the basis of modern evolutionary theory. They go on to say,

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Debating philosophers: The Modern Synthesis

I'm discussing a paper by Lu and Bourrat (2017) [Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper]. They begin by describing current evolutionary theory, known (to them) as the Modern Synthesis. The paper is about challenges to current evolutionary theory from those who advocate an extended evolutionary synthesis or from those who would replace, rather than extend, current evolutionary theory. It is reasonable to begin with a description of the theory that's being challenged.

Here's what Lu & Bourrat say,

Debating philosophers: The Lu and Bourrat paper

John Wilkins posted a link on Facebook to a recent paper by his colleagues in Australia. The authors are Qiaoying Lu of the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia and Pierrick Bourat of the Department of Philosophy at The University of Sydney in Sidney Australia.

Lu, Q., and Bourrat, P. (2017) The evolutionary gene and the extended evolutionary synthesis. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, (advanced article) April 20, 2017. [doi: 10.1093/bjps/axw035] [PhilSci Archive]

Abstract: Advocates of an ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ have claimed that standard evolutionary theory fails to accommodate epigenetic inheritance. The opponents of the extended synthesis argue that the evidence for epigenetic inheritance causing adaptive evolution in nature is insufficient. We suggest that the ambiguity surrounding the conception of the gene represents a background semantic issue in the debate. Starting from Haig’s gene-selectionist framework and Griffiths and Neumann-Held’s notion of the evolutionary gene, we define senses of ‘gene’, ‘environment’, and ‘phenotype’ in a way that makes them consistent with gene-centric evolutionary theory. We argue that the evolutionary gene, when being materialized, need not be restricted to nucleic acids but can encompass other heritable units such as epialleles. If the evolutionary gene is understood more broadly, and the notions of environment and phenotype are defined accordingly, current evolutionary theory does not require a major conceptual change in order to incorporate the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance.

1 Introduction
2 The Gene-centric Evolutionary Theory and the ‘Evolutionary Gene’
      2.1 The evolutionary gene
      2.2 Genes, phenotypes, and environments
3 Epigenetic Inheritance and the Gene-Centred Framework
      3.1 Treating the gene as the sole heritable material?
      3.2 Epigenetics and phenotypic plasticity
4 Conclusion

The selfish gene vs the lucky allele

The Selfish Gene was published forty-one years ago (1976) and last year there was a bit of a celebration. I think we can all appreciate the impact that the book had at the time but I'm not sure it's as profound and lasting as most people believe ["The Selfish Gene" turns 40] [The "selfish gene" is not a good metaphor to describe evolution] [Die, selfish gene, die!].

The main criticisms fall into two categories: (1) the primary unit of selection is the individual organism, not the gene, and (2) the book placed too much emphasis on adaptation (Darwinism). I think modern evolutionary theory is based on 21st century population genetics and that view puts a great deal of emphasis on the power of random genetic drift. The evolution of a population involves the survival of individuals within the population and that, in turn, depends on the variation that exists in the population. Thus, evolution is characterized by changes in the frequencies of alleles in a population.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Professor, please can I have more marks?

I submitted my grades on Thursday morning and they were approved by the Department of Biochemistry in short order. Once the final grades have been approved and submitted to the Faculty they can't be changed unless the change is approved by the Departmental Chair. Students may appeal their grade by paying a fee to re-read their final exam but, even then, I do not have the authority on my own to change a grade. I have to justify any change in writing. This is a good thing.

A few hours after the grades were posted I received an email message from a student [It's that time of year, again]. Here's part of what the student said,
I just saw my final mark ... which was an 76, and was very surprised. I thought I'd done well on the final exam, and had studied hard. My performance on the Midterm was good, and I had expected this to be just as well. As such, I wanted to humbly inquire whether it'd be possible to move me a 77 (a 1% increase) or even an 80. This small difference could make a very big impact on my GPA as I apply for positions to pursue a master or other professional degrees. With the mark as it is now, I fall below the GPA requirement for a program I wish to enroll in next year and will have to do another few courses or a full year to make up for it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bill Martin is coming to town!!!

Contact me by email if you'd like to meet him on Sunday, April 30th.

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #6

How can alleles be fixed in a population by positive natural selection (i.e. adaptation) if the environment remains constant for thousands of years?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #5

Many people believe that recombination evolved because it increases genetic variation in a population and this provided a selective advantage over species that didn’t have recombination. Do you agree with this explanation for the evolution of recombination? Why, or why not? What are the other possibilities?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #4

More than 90% of our genome is transcribed when you add up all the transcripts from various cell types and various times of development (= pervasive transcription). Many biologists take this as evidence that most of the DNA in our genome is functional. What are the counter-arguments? Who do you believe and why?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #3

The Three Domain Hypothesis has eukaryotes and archaea branching off from eubacteria. It shows eukaryotes more closely related to archaea than to eubacteria. However, many scientific studies indicate that a majority of our genes are more similar to eubacterial genes than to archaeal genes. How do you explain this apparent conflict?

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #2

The paper by Andrews et al. (2011) lists a number of common misconceptions held by their students. One of them is the idea that, “Evolution is a process that will never stop, even in the human species.” Why do they think this is a misconception? Do you agree?

Andrews, T.M., Kalinowski, S.T., and Leonard, M.J. (2011). “Are humans evolving?” A classroom discussion to change student misconceptions regarding natural selection. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4:456-466. [doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0343-4]
Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

The last molecular evolution exam: Question #1

Eugene Koonin described his view of the proper null hypothesis for evolutionary questions. One of the examples he used concerns the evolution of recent gene duplications (Koonin, 2016 p.5). Describe how one possible fate of these genes relates to constructive neutral evolution. What are the other possible fates of these genes? Which one is most likely?

Koonin, E.V. (2016) Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution. BMC biology, 14:114 [doi: 10.1186/s12915-016-0338-2]

... in eukaryotes, duplicates of individual genes cannot be effectively eliminated by selection and thus often persist and diverge. The typical result is subfunctionalization, whereby the gene duplicates undergo differential mutational deterioration, losing subsets of ancestral functions. As a result, the evolving organisms become locked into maintaining the pair of paralogs. Subfunctionalization underlies a more general phenomenon, denoted constructive neutral evolution (CNE).

Question #1, Question #2, Question #3, Question #4, Question #5, Question #6

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Vimy Ridge

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The battle invovled four divisions of the Canadian Corps and it has become a symbol for Canada of the sacrifices made during World War I. The symbol is remarkable for the beautiful Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial designed by Walter Seymour Allward. He intended it to be a "sermon against the futility of war."

It is remarkably successful as such a symbol since, among other things, it contains the names of more than 11,000 Canadians who died in World War I and whose bodies were never recovered. We visited the memorial in 2011 with my granddaughter Zoë [Canadian National Vimy Memorial] and found the name of Lance Corporal Robert Alexander Hood, a cousin of Leslie's grandfather and Zoë's great-great-grandfather.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Somatic cell mutation rate in humans

A few years ago, Tomasetti and Vogelstein (2015) published a paper where they noted a correlation between rates of cancer and the number of cell divisions. They concluded that a lot of cancers could be attributed to bad luck. This conclusion didn't sit well with most people for two reasons. (1) There are many well-known environmental effects that increase cancer rates (e.g. smoking, radiation), and (2) there's a widespread belief that you can significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer by "healthy living" (whatever that is). The first objection is based on solid scientific evidence but the second one is not as scientific.

Some of the objections to the original Tomasetti and Vogelstein paper were based on the mathematical models they used to reach their conclusions. The authors have now followed up on their original study with more data. The paper appears in the March 24, 2017 issue of Science (Tomasetti and Vogelstein, 2017). If you're interested in the debate over "bad luck" you should read the accompanying review by Nowak and Waclaw (2017). They conclude that the math is sound and many cancer-causing mutations are, in fact, due to chance mutations in somatic cells. They point out something that should be obvious but bears repeating.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How to define evolution?

Do you think this video is helpful? [see "What Is Evolution?"] Is it important to know that evolution requires genetic changes and that it's populations that evolve? Is it important to have a definition of evolution that covers antibiotic resistance in bacteria and blood types in humans?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Correcting the correction of a video about evolution

Charlie McDonnell is the author of a book called Fun Science: A Guide To Life, The Universe And Why Science Is So Awesome. He made a video on misconceptions about the theory of evolution (see below). Sally Le Page (below left) is an evolutionary biologist working on her Ph.D. at Oxford (UK). She noticed a few problems with the McDonnell video so she made one of her own to correct the misconception in the first video. Now it's my turn to correct the misconception in the video that corrects the first video!

Sally Le Page highlights six misconceptions in the McDonnell video. She points out that none of them are very important—they are "little niggles"—but she still thinks a comment is necessary. (I agree.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 4: Pervasive Transcription

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! The first chapter is an introduction to genomes and DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes ]. Chapter 2 is an overview of the human genome. It's a summary of known functional sequences and known junk DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture]. Chapter 3 defines "genes" and describes protein-coding genes and alternative splicing [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?].

Chapter 4 is all about pervasive transcription and genes for functional noncoding RNAs.
Chapter 4: Pervasive Transcription
  • How much of the genome is transcribed?
  • How do we know about pervasive transcription?
  • Different kinds of noncoding RNAs
  •         Box 4-1: Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs)
  • Understanding transcription
  •         Box 4-2: Revisiting the Central Dogma
  • What the scientific papers don’t tell you
  •         Box 4-3: John Mattick proves his hypothesis?
  • On the origin of new genes
  • The biggest blow to junk?
  •         Box 4-4: How do you tell if it’s functional?
  • Biochemistry is messy
  • Evolution as a tinkerer
  •         Box 4-5: Dealing with junk RNA
  • Change your worldview

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! The first chapter is an introduction to genomes and DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes ]. Chapter 2 is an overview of the human genome. It's a summary of known functional sequences and known junk DNA [What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture]. Here's the TOC entry for Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?. The goal is to define "gene" and determine how many protein-coding genes are in the human genome. (Noncoding genes are described in the next chapter.)

Chapter 3: What Is a Gene?
  • Defining a gene
  •         Box 3-1: Philosophers and genes
  • Counting Genes
  • Misleading statements about the number of genes
  • Introns and the evolution of split genes
  • Introns are mostly junk
  • Alternative splicing
  •         Box 3-2: Competing databases
  • Alternative splicing and disease
  •         Box 3-3: The false logic of the argument from         complexity
  • Gene families and the birth & death of genes
  •         Box 3-4: Real orphans in the human genome
  • Different kinds of pseudogenes
  •         Box 3-5: Conserved pseudogenes and Ken Miller’s         argument against intelligent design
  • Are they really pseudogenes?
  • How accurate is the genome sequence?
  • The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology
  • ENCODE proposes a “new” definition of “gene”
  • What is noncoding DNA?
  • Dark matter

Monday, March 06, 2017

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 2: The Big Picture

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! I thought I'd post the TOC for each chapter as I finish the first drafts. Here's chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Big Picture
  • How much of the genome has been sequenced?
  • Whose genome was sequenced?
  • How many genes?
  • Pseudogenes
  • Regulatory sequences
  • Origins of replication
  • Centromeres
  • Telomeres
  • Scaffold Attachment regions (SARs)
  • Transposons
  • Viruses
  • Mitochondrial DNA (NumtS)
  • How much of our genome is functional?

What's in Your Genome? Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes

I'm working (slowly) on a book called What's in Your Genome?: 90% of your genome is junk! I thought I'd post the TOC for each chapter as I finish the first drafts. Here's chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Introducing Genomes
  • The genome war
  • What is DNA?
  • Chromatin
  • How big is your genome?
  • Active genes?
  • What do you need to know?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Another physicist teaches us about evolution

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York. Like many physicists, he thinks he's smart enough to know everything about everything so he doesn't hesitate to lecture people about evolution.

In this case. He's telling us that humans have reached perfection in all adaptive traits so there can't be any more selection for things like bigger brains. He tells us that human evolution has stopped because no animals are chasing us in the forest any more. He also let's us know that there are no more isolated populations because of jet planes. Watch the video to see how little he understands.

Is there something peculiar about physicists? Does anyone know of any biologists who make YouTube videos about quantum mechanics or black holes? If not, is that because biologists are too stupid ... or too smart?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sloppiness in translation initiation

There are two competing worldviews in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. The distinction was captured a few years ago by Laurence Hurst commenting on pervasive transcription when he said, "So there are two models; one, the world is messy and we're forever making transcripts we don't want. Or two, the genome is like the most exquisitely designed Swiss watch and we don't understand its working. We don't know the answer—which is what makes genomics so interesting." (Hopkins, 2009).

I refer to these two world views as the Swiss watch analogy and the Rube Goldberg analogy.

The distinction is important because, depending on your worldview, you will interpret things very differently. We see it in the debate over junk DNA where those in the Swiss watch category have trouble accepting that we could have a genome full of junk. Those in the Rube Goldberg category (I am one) tend to dismiss a lot of data as just noise or sloppiness.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Did Rosalind Franklin produce the first X-ray diffraction images of DNA?

There's an interesting video of ten famous women scientists at Interesting S_Word: [Top 10 Female Scientists of History]. The image of Rosalind Franklin caught my eye (see right).

Perhaps I'm nitpicking but fake news is all the rage these days so I think we'd better be extra careful to present real facts rather than alternative facts. In that spirit, I'll mention two things.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dan Graur explains junk DNA

If you want to be a serious participant in the debate over junk DNA then you should watch this video. Dan Graur presents the standard arguments for junk DNA—most of which have been around for decades. He also destroys the main arguments against junk DNA. You are entitled to choose sides in this debate but you are not entitled to pose as an authority unless you know the best arguments from BOTH sides. It is not sufficient to just quote evidence for function as support for your bias. You must also refute the evidence for junk. You have to show why it is wrong or misleading.

Hat Tip: PZ Myers

Sunday, February 12, 2017

ENCODE workshop discusses function in 2015

A reader directed me to a 2015 ENCODE workshop with online videos of all the presentations [From Genome Function to Biomedical Insight: ENCODE and Beyond]. The workshop was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md (USA). The purpose of the workshop was ...

  1. Discuss the scientific questions and opportunities for better understanding genome function and applying that knowledge to basic biological questions and disease studies through large-scale genomics studies.
  2. Consider options for future NHGRI projects that would address these questions and opportunities.
The main controversy concerning the human genome is how much of it is junk DNA with no function. Since the purpose of ENCODE is to understand genome function, I expected a lively discussion about how to distinguish between functional elements and spurious nonfunctional elements.

Darwin Day 2017

Today is Darwin Day but I'm too busy with other things to write a new post in his honor. So here's a post from 2007 (slightly updated) to help you enjoy the day.

Today is the birthday of the greatest scientist who ever lived. When you visit Darwin's home (Down House) you get a sense of what he must have been like. One of the things that's obvious is the number of bedrooms for the children. The house must have been alive with the activities of young children. It's no wonder that Darwin needed some peace and quiet from time to time.

Gwen Raverat was Darwin's granddaughter (daughter of George Darwin). She described Down House as she knew it in the years shortly after Darwin died.
Of all places at Down, the Sandwalk seemed most to belong to my grandfather. It was a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden, and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. The path ran straight down the outside of the wood--the Light Side--till it came to a summer-house at the far end; it was very lonely there; to this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys.
I became interested in Darwin's children about fifteen years ago when I first began to appreciate the influence they had on his life. We all know the story of Annie's death when she was ten years old and how this led to Darwin's rejection of religion. There were other tragedies but Charles and Emma turned out to be very good parents.

Here's a short biography of each of Darwin's children from
William Erasmus Darwin
The first of Darwin's children was born on December 27, 1839. He was a graduate of Christ’s College at Cambridge University, and was a banker in Southampton. He married Sara Ashburner from New York, but they had no children. William died in 1914.

Anne Elizabeth Darwin
Born on March 2 1841, and died at the age of ten of tuberculosis on April 22, 1851. It was the death of Annie that radically altered Darwin’s belief in Christianity.

Mary Eleanor Darwin
Born on September 23, 1842 but died a few weeks later on October 16th.

Henrietta Emma Darwin ("Etty")
Born on September 25, 1843 and married Richard Buckley Litchfield in August of 1871. She lived 86 years and edited Emma's (her mother) personal letters and had them published in 1904. She had no children.

George Howard Darwin
Born on July 9, 1845. He was an astronomer and mathematician, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society ... in 1879. In 1883 he became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, and was a Barrister-at-Law. He studied the evolution and origins of the solar system. George married Martha (Maud) du Puy from Philadelphia. They had two sons, and two daughters. He died in 1912.

Elizabeth Darwin
Born on July 8, 1847 and died in 1926. She never married and had no children.

Francis Darwin
Born on August 16, 1848. He became a botanist specializing in plant physiology. He helped his father with his experiments on plants and was of great influence in Darwin's writing of "The Power of Movement in Plants" (1880). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1879, and taught at Cambridge University from 1884, as a Professor of Botany, until 1904. He edited many of Darwin's correspondence and published "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1887, and "More Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1903. He also edited and published Darwin’s Autobiography. He married Amy Ruck but she died when their first child, Bernard, was born in September of 1876. He then married Ellen Crofts in September of 1883, and they had one daughter, Frances in 1886. Francis was knighted in 1913, and died in 1925.

Leonard Darwin
Born on January 15, 1850. He became a soldier in the Royal Engineers in 1871, and was a Major from 1890 onwards. He taught at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham from 1877 to 1882, and served in the Ministry of War, Intelligence Division, from 1885-90. He later became a liberal-unionist MP for the town of Lichfield in Staffordshire 1892-95, and was president of the Royal Geological Society 1908-11. Leonard married Elizabeth Fraser in July of 1882. He married a second time, but had no children and died in 1943.

Horace Darwin
Born on May 13, 1851. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and became an engineer and a builder of scientific instruments. In 1885 he founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. He was the Mayor of Cambridge from 1896-97, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. Horace married Emma Farrer in January of 1880 and they had three children. He died in 1928.

Charles Waring Darwin
Born on December 6, 1856 but died on June 28 1858.

This is something I wrote about my visit to Westminster Abby 17 years ago.

Eventually we wind around the Monastery and finally enter the Nave. Ignoring the monument to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and hardly bothering to look up and admire the high ceiling, I head for the front of the church where I can see the statue of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This is the same statue that plays such an important role in the Da Vinci Code but today I’m not interested in Newton or his orb. I takes me only a few seconds to find the marked stone on the floor. I’m standing on the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.

I can picture the scene on Wednesday, April 26, 1882—a grand funeral attended by all of London’s high society and the leading intellectuals of the most powerful nation in the world. Darwin would not have been pleased. He wanted to be buried quietly in the Downe cemetery with his brother Erasmus and two of his children. Darwin's family was persuaded by his friends Galton, Hooker, Huxley and the President of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, that, for the sake of England, Darwin should be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As Janet Browne writes in her biography of Charles Darwin, "Dying was the most political thing Darwin could have done."

Looking around I can see the tomb of Joseph Hooker and a memorial to Alfred Wallace, two of the scientists who were Darwin’s pallbearers. (Another pallbearer, Thomas Henry Huxley, is buried elsewhere.) Nearby are the final resting places of a host of famous scientists; Kelvin, Joule, Clerk-Maxwell, Faraday, Herschell, and Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell was Darwin’s hero and mentor. We are told that Darwin’s wife Emma wished he were buried closer to Lyell.

I am not overly sentimental but this visit has a powerful effect. I think Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived—yes, even greater than Sir Isaac Newton whose huge statue overshadows Darwin’s humble marker in the floor. Natural selection is one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time. Darwin discovered it and he deserves most of the credit. But Charles Darwin died on April 19 in 1882 and that was a long time ago.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What did ENCODE researchers say on Reddit?

ENCODE researchers answered a bunch of question on Reddit a few days ago. I asked them to give their opinion on how much junk DNA is in our genome but they declined to answer that question. However, I think we can get some idea about the current thinking in the leading labs by looking at the questions they did choose to answer. I don't think the picture is very encouraging. It's been almost five years since the ENCODE publicity disaster of September 2012. You'd think the researchers might have learned a thing or two about junk DNA since that fiasco.

The question and answer session on Reddit was prompted by award of a new grant to ENCODE. They just received 31.5 million dollars to continue their search for functional regions in the human genome. You might have guessed that Dan Graur would have a few words to say about giving ENCODE even more money [Proof that 100% of the Human Genome is Functional & that It Was Created by a Very Intelligent Designer @ENCODE_NIH].

Thursday, February 09, 2017

NIH and UCSF ENCODE researchers are on Reddit right now!

Check out Science AMA Series: We’re Drs. Michael Keefer and James Kobie, infectious .... (Thanks to Paul Nelson for alerting me to the discussion.)

Here's part of the introduction ...
Yesterday NIH announced its latest round of ENCODE funding, which includes support for five new collaborative centers focused on using cutting edge techniques to characterize the candidate functional elements in healthy and diseased human cells. For example, when and where does an element function, and what exactly does it do.

UCSF is host to two of these five new centers, where researchers are using CRISPR gene editing, embryonic stem cells, and other new tools that let us rapidly screen hundreds of thousands of genome sequences in many different cell types at a time to learn which sequences are biologically relevant — and in what contexts they matter.

Today’s AMA brings together the leaders of NIH’s ENCODE project and the leaders of UCSF’s partner research centers.

Your hosts today are:

Nadav Ahituv, UCSF professor in the department of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences. Interested in gene regulation and how its alteration leads to morphological differences between organisms and human disease. Loves science and juggling.
Elise Feingold: Lead Program Director, Functional Genomics Program, NHGRI. I’ve been part of the ENCODE Project Management team since its start in 2003. I came up with the project’s name, ENCODE!
Dan Gilchrist, Program Director, Computational Genomics and Data Science, NHGRI. I joined the ENCODE Project Management team in 2014. Interests include mechanisms of gene regulation, using informatics to address biological questions, surf fishing.
Mike Pazin, Program Director, Functional Genomics Program, NHGRI. I’ve been part of the ENCODE Project Management team since 2011. My background is in chromatin structure and gene regulation. I love science, learning about how things work, and playing music.
Yin Shen: Assistant Professor in Neurology and Institute for Human Genetics, UCSF. I am interested in how genetics and epigenetics contribute to human health and diseases, especial for the human brain and complex neurological diseases. If I am not doing science, I like experimenting in the kitchen.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A philosopher tells us how to think clearly about evolutionary causes ... avoid adaptationism

I think philosophy has lost its way. The discipline gives credence to religious philosophers who write about god(s) and to other philosophers who reject determinism and think the mind-body problem is still an open question. Philosophers still debate the validity of the ontological argument. Philosophers of science have not even settled the question of what is science, let alone come up with a valid answer of how to do it. There are few other disciplines that are still respected after several hundred years of trying, and failing, to answer the most fundamental questions in their field. Many academic philosophy department are hotbeds of political correctness and just plain politics.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Ricky Gervais explains atheism

Watch Ricky Gervais explain atheism to Stephen Colbert. I like his explanation of the difference between science and religion. In fact, I like it so much I'm going to embellish it a bit and present it here ...

Imagine what would happen after a giant meteor strike that wipes out everyone except for a small native tribe in the Andes that had no contact with other people before the apocalypse. All books and all knowledge will be destroyed.

Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they'll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won't be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That's the difference between science and religion.

Why is life the way it is?

Nick Lane is very good at explaining complex biology and biochemistry. He is the winner of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for 2016. Here's his lecture. It's worth watching if you want to understand the latest informed (naturalistic) speculations on the origin of life.

Trying to educate a creationist (Otangelo Grasso)

Otangelo Grasso is a creationist who's convinced he can learn to understand biochemistry by reading what's on the internet and copy-pasting it into his website. He then takes that limited knowledge and concludes that evolution is impossible. He often poses "gotcha" questions based on his flawed understanding.

His behavior isn't very different from most other creationists who suffer from Dunning-Kruger Disease but he happens to be someone who I thought could be educated.

I was wrong.

Over the years I've tried to correct a number of errors he's made so we could have an intelligent discussion about evolution. You can't have such a discussion if one side ignores facts and refuses to learn. Here's an example of a previous attempt: Fun and games with Otangelo Grasso about photosynthesis. Here's a post from yesterday showing that I wasted my time: Otangelo Grasso on photosynthesi.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Discovery Institute publishes another anti-evolution book

It's not Saturday morning but you can enjoy this cartoon anyway.

Tom Bethell ... writes like a dream.
                      —Fred Barnes

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Scientists confused about photosynthesis - press release makes it worse

Photosynthesis is the series of reactions that capture light energy and use it to make ATP and sometimes reducing equivalents (e.g NADPH). There are many different versions of photosynthesis. One of the simplest is found in purple bacteria where the process results in formation of a proton gradient that's used to drive ATP synthesis.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The evolution of the citric acid cycle

I just realized that I don't have a post devoted to the evolution of the citric acid cycle. This need to be remedied since I often talk about it. It's a good example of how an apparently irreducibly complex pathway can arise by evolution. It's also a good example to get students to think outside of the box. Undergraduate biochemistry courses usually concentrate on human physiology and too often students transfer that bias to all other species. They assume that what happens in humans is what happens in plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria.1

Here's what the standard citric acid cycle looks like (Moran et al., 2011 p. 393).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Once again, the IDiots don't understand evolution

This is so frustrating. I've been debating creationists for almost 30 years. My colleagues and I have tried time and time again over those three decades to educate them about real evolutionary theory. We've also tried to teach them about the difference between evolution and the history of life. In order to explain the history of life on Earth you need to account for mass extinctions and other chance events that have nothing to do with evolution. They refuse to listen.

The latest evidence is a recent post by David Klinghoffer [Theory of Evolution? Call It a "Narrative" Instead]. He says,
The theory of evolution by natural selection operating on random mutations, as a sweeping explanation for life and how it got there, is a "narrative." It presents a very smooth story, persuasive to most scientists. The facts may all be true, but the conclusion: BS.
No knowledgeable scientist thinks that natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution so no knowledgeable scientist thinks that mutation + selection explains the history of life. That's just BS. Not only are scientists aware of what modern evolutionary theory actually says but they're also aware of other factors that determined the history of life.

Now you know why we call them IDiots. What is it that makes them so resistant to learning about the ideas they so adamantly oppose? They can still oppose correct ideas if they want. Isn't that better than fighting strawmen?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why does the human population carry an allele that increases the risk of Alzheimer's?

The human apolipoprotein E gene (ApoE) has several alleles segregating in the human population. One of them, E4, is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer's. Ed Yong, writing for The Atlantic, asks "Why Do Humans Still Have a Gene That Increases the Risk of Alzheimer's?

I can think of several answers off the top of my head. The most important one is that Alzheimer's has very little effect on your ability to have children. The disease may not even have developed in most of our ancestors who tended to die younger. In order to be subject to negative selection the allele has to affect adults before they reproduce.

The second reason is that the slight deleterious effect, if there is one from an evolution perspective, may not have been significant enough in small populations. I know, and I hope my students know, that neutral and deleterious alleles can reach significant frequency in a population by chance. The general public doesn't know this.

Check out Ed Yong's article to see his explanation.
“It doesn’t make sense,” says Ben Trumble, from Arizona State University. “You’d have thought that natural selection would have weeded out ApoE4 a long time ago. The fact that we have it at all is a little bizarre.”

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The pervasive transcription controversy: 2002

I'm working on a chapter about pervasive transcription and how it relates to the junk DNA debate. I found a short review in Nature from 2002 so I decided to see how much progress we've made in the past 15 years.

Most of our genome is transcribed at some time or another in some tissue. That's a fact we've known about since the late 1960s (King and Jukes, 1969). We didn't know it back then, but it turns out that a lot of that transcription is introns. In fact, the observation of abundant transcription led to the discovery of introns. We have about 20,000 protein-coding genes and the average gene is 37.2 kb in length. Thus, the total amount of the genome devoted to these genes is about 23%. That's the amount that's transcribed to produce primary transcripts and mRNA. There are about 5000 noncoding genes that contribute another 2% so genes occupy about 25% of our genome.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pyruvate dehydrogenase astonishes Ann Gauger

Ann Gauger was reading a cell paper the other day [Digging Deep in Biology: "Things Get Even More Complicated When You Look Closer"]. The subject was the localization of citric acid cycle enzymes and pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH). She did a little digging and this is what astonished her ...

... so I looked up pyruvate dehydrogenase and found to my astonishment that it is not one enzyme but an enormous complex of three different enzymatic activities clustered together on a cube-shaped core of 24 units, or alternatively a dodecahedral core of 60 units. The enzymes work together to turn pyruvate into acetyl CoA in a three-step process, handing off to each other as the reaction proceeds.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Why are most biologists adaptationists?

I enjoyed listening to Michael Lynch's talk on Friday. Much of what he said has been covered in Sandwalk over the past few years. His main point was that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of population genetics. He laments the fact that most biologists, and even most evolutionary biologists, don't have a firm grasp of population genetics and the importance of random genetic drift.

I asked him why he thought this was true. He said he didn't know why. I think he was being polite. If you read his book, "The Origins of Genome Architecture," you'll see that he attributes this phenomeon to ignorance of modern evolutionary theory.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The dynamic duo tell us about five problems with evolution

Here's a link to a remarkable radio interview with Stephen Meyer and Doug Axe. The subject is the Royal Society meeting last November on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. The theme is not Intelligent Design Creationism, instead it's all about so-called problems with evolutionary theory. That's really what ID is all about in spite of what the IDiots may claim. [see A Royal Pain: Stephen Meyer and Douglas Axe on Five Problems for Evolution.]

Here are the five problems according to IDiots.
  1. Fossil record (Cambrian explosion)
  2. The origin of information (no known natural source of information)
  3. The necessity of early mutations (you can't mutate regulatory genes that act early in development because all mutations in those genes are lethal)
  4. Epigenetic information (you can't evolve new body plans by mutating DNA because development is controlled by non-DNA epigenetic information)
  5. The universal design intuition that we all have (everybody thinks that people are created by a god-like designer, even atheists, so it must be true)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

What the heck is epigenetics?

"Epigenetics" is the (relatively) new buzzword. Old-fashioned genetics is boring so if you want to convince people (and grant agencies) you're on the frontlines of research you have to say you're working on epigenetics. Even better, you can tell them that you are on the verge of overthrowing Darwinism and bringing back Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

But you need to be careful if you adopt this strategy. Don't let anyone pin you down by defining "epigenetics." It's best to leave it as ambiguous as possible so you can adopt the Humpty-Dumpty strategy.1 Sarah C.P. Williams made that mistake a few years ago and incurred the wrath of Mark Ptashne [Core Misconcept: Epigenetics].

Friday, January 06, 2017

Genetic variation in the human population

With a current population size of over 7 billion, the human population should contain a huge amount of genetic variation. Most of it resides in junk DNA so it's of little consequence. We would like to know more about the amount of variation in functional regions of the genome because it tells us something about population genetics and evolutionary theory.

A recent paper in Nature (Aug. 2016) looked at a large dataset of 60,706 individuals. They sequenced the protein-coding regions of all these people to see what kind of variation existed (Lek et al., 2016) (ExAC). The group included representatives from all parts of the world although it was heavily weighted toward Europeans. The authors used a procedure called "principal component analysis" (PCA) to cluster the individuals according to their genetic characteristics. The analysis led to the typical clustering by "population clusters." (That term is used to avoid the words "race" and/or "subspecies.")

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Birth and death of genes in a hybrid frog genome

De novo genes1 are quite rare but genome duplications are quite common. Sometimes the duplicated regions contain genes so the new genome contains two copies of a gene that was formerly present in only one copy. "Common" in this sense means on a scale of millions of years. Michael Lynch and his colleague have calculated that the rate of fixed gene duplication is about 0.01 per gene per million years (Lynch and Conery, 2003 a,b; Lynch 2007). Since a typical vertebrate has more than 20,000 genes, this means that 200 genes will be duplicated and fixed every million years.

The initial duplication event is likely to be deleterious since there will now be redundant DNA in the genome. The slightly deleterious allele (duplication) can be purged by negative selection in species with large population sizes (e.g. bacteria). But in species with smaller populations, natural selection is not powerful enough to eliminate slightly deleterious alleles so the duplication persists and may become fixed in the population.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Do seahorses evolve faster?

Genome sequencing is becoming so routine that it's difficult to publish your new genome sequence in a top journal. The trick is to find something unique and exciting about your genome so you can attract the attention of the leading journals. The latest success is the seahorse genome published in the Dec. 15, 2016 issue of Nature (Lin et al., 2016.

The species is the tiger tail seahorse Hippocampus comes. The assembled genome is 502Mb or about 1/6th the size of the human genome. The seahorse has 23,458 genes (protein-coding?) or about the same number as most other vertebrates. About 25% of the genome is junk (transposon-related).1

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Save the date!!! Michael Lynch is coming to Toronto

Michael Lynch is giving a seminar next week on Friday, January 13, 2017 in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. The title is: Mutation, Drift, and the Origin of Subcellular Features. The talk is at 3PM in the Earth Sciences Centre rm B142.

The exit exam for biochemistry and molecular biology students

I'm a big fan of teaching fundamental concepts and principles and a big fan of teaching critical thinking. I think the most effective way of accomplishing these objectives is some form of student-centered learning. As I near the end of my teaching career, I wonder how we can tell if we succeed? It should be relatively easy to develop an exit exam for our biochemistry/molecular biology students to see if they grasp the basic concepts and can demonstrate an ability to think critically.

Here are some of the questions we could have on that exam. Each one requires a short answer with an explanation. The explanation doesn't have to be detailed or full of facts, just the basic idea. Students are graded on their ability to think critically about the answers. Many of the questions don't have a simple answer. Can you think of any other questions?

Monday, January 02, 2017

You MUST read this paper if you are interested in evolution

A reader alerted me to a paper that was just published in BMC Biology.1 The author is Eugene Koonin. He makes the case for neutral evolution (random genetic drift) and against adaptationism. You may not agree with his take on evolutionary theory but you better be aware of it if you claim to be knowledgeable about evolution.

Koonin, E.V. (2016) Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution. BMC biology, 14:114. [doi: 10.1186/s12915-016-0338-2]
The study of any biological features, including genomic sequences, typically revolves around the question: what is this for? However, population genetic theory, combined with the data of comparative genomics, clearly indicates that such a “pan-adaptationist” approach is a fallacy. The proper question is: how has this sequence evolved? And the proper null hypothesis posits that it is a result of neutral evolution: that is, it survives by sheer chance provided that it is not deleterious enough to be efficiently purged by purifying selection. To claim adaptation, the neutral null has to be falsified. The adaptationist fallacy can be costly, inducing biologists to relentlessly seek function where there is none.