It’s Evolution Baby!!
In a vintage episode of The Simpsons, Homer, after destroying and then over-repairing a toaster, finds it can magically transport him through time by simply pushing down the toast button. He first backtracks to the time of dinosaurs, and recalls a piece of advice given to him on his wedding day by Grampa:
If you ever travel back in time, don’t step on anything, because even the tiniest change can alter the future in waaays you can’t imagine.
Homer breaks the rule at once–cue noisy bug encircling him—
Stupid bug! You go squish now!!
Then, once he pushes down on the toast button in order to thrust himself back to present time, the world is strangely different.
Homer’s predicament invoked a keystone question in biology: how contingent is evolution on life history? Like a kid in a candy store, I pondered these types of questions at the Keystone Evolutionary Developmental Biology meeting in Lake Tahoe, CA, last February.
The meeting had a friendly reunion-like feeling, as it was organized by Sean Carroll and two of his former postdocs who now have their own labs, Trisha Wikktrop and Nicole King. There was a lot of camaraderie on display, and an eagerness to share new results and ideas.
I was so pleased to meet Sean Carroll, the coolest PI on the planet. If you ever see Sean, plant yourself next to him, as he can regale you with wonderful stories on science, from world travels to research his acclaimed books, to why you’ll probably see Tiktaalik in an upcoming episode of Family Guy. He’s also incredibly kind, brilliant, and appears to be as equally comfortable talking to you in the lab as he is at the bar.
My favorite talk of the meeting was by Richard Lenski, who gave an update on his mind-blowing 50,000+ generation/22-year long (and counting), E. coli evolution experiment. If you’re not familiar with this work, you really should go read about it.
The dominant theme of the meeting was cis-regulatory elements, and our developing understanding of how critical a role they play in evolution. This played out in pretty much every kind of trait under the sun, in all kingdoms of life. Enhancer sequences were the most common example discussed, including the importance of having strong ones, weak ones, and those close to and far-away from the genes they regulate. (I think these things also share some similarities to miRNA binding sites.)
I spent some recreation time with a couple grad students from Joe Thorton’s lab, Mike and Dave. We went snowshoeing down a freshly powdered trail to the brilliant blue Tahoe lake. This day turned out to be perfect snowman building weather too.
This was the kind of meeting that any biologist could really love, and I can’t wait for my next one!
[Simpsons reference from Halloween special, Season 6.]