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Evolution
Asking Questions

All available evidence supports the central conclusions of evolutionary theory, that life on Earth has evolved and that species share common ancestors. Biologists are not arguing about these conclusions. But they are trying to figure out how evolution happens and are trying to answer questions like:

  • Does evolution tend to proceed slowly and steadily or in quick jumps?
  • Why are some clades very diverse and some unusually sparse?
  • How does evolution produce new and complex features?
  • Are there trends in evolution, and if so, what processes generate them?
Explore Issues from Evolution 101 on the Understanding Evolution Web site.
Magpie love Mirrors

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People don't have a monopoly on the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors. Great apes, bottlenose dolphins, and Asian elephants have also passed the mirror test, showing a capacity for self-recognition that is believed to be a sign of a rudimentary sense of self. In August, in a paper in PLoS Biolog, scientists described the first nonmammalian species that can claim membership in this exclusive club: the European magpie...
Click here to read more from Discover Magazine. Text from Discover Magazine. Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Historical Viewpoint

Understanding the history of evolutionary thinking can illuminate the ongoing nature of science--how ideas are revised with new evidence and perspectives, how science builds upon itself, and how breakthroughs in one discipline can contribute to knowledge and investigations in another. To see how ideas and evidence from four scientific disciplinary areas have contributed to our current understanding of evolution, visit:


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Explore Evolution

To many, evolution is a thing of the past - an idea that Darwin developed, or an explanation of fossils and things that lived long ago. But evolution is not only alive and well in 2009, it is a global phenomenon and critical to our understanding of many aspects that influence our lives. The map below is just a small sampling of recent news stories focusing on research that is deeply intertwined with evolutionary concepts. Just click on each flag to learn more!

Just mouse over or click on each flag to learn more!



Map Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, The SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye, Scientific Visualization Studio.

EXPLORING EVOLUTIONARY THOUGHT

Just as life has a history, science has a history. Though Charles Darwin is the historical figure most closely associated with evolution, his ideas built upon previous biological and geological knowledge. In the same way, modern evolutionary biologists continue to build upon the ideas of Darwin and his contemporaries. New tools and technologies allow us to answer questions about the natural world that would have been out of reach in Darwin's time! We have assembled profiles of practicing evolutionary scientists, sharing details of their research for you to enjoy:

Gary Richards, Human Evolution Research Center, UC Berkeley

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1. What I like best about doing science?


As an Evolutionary Anthropologist I love being immersed in a life's work that might allow me to fit one piece of understanding into the 'History of Life' jigsaw puzzle. The only problem is that just when I think I have a fit, the puzzle changes with new information--frustrating but engaging.

2. What is the focus of your research?


I study human craniofacial ontogeny (growth and development), and my research focuses on both normal and abnormal growth processes.

3. Why is evolution an important part of your science?


Studying ontogeny in modern people only reveals part of the story, because skulls are made up of individual pieces, each with their own evolutionary histories. Learning how the skull parts have changed helps us to understand why globally distributed populations can look so different and yet be so similar. There is also a practical application for developing new treatments that can improve the outcomes for children with craniofacial malformations.

 

Carole S. Hickman, Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley

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1. What I like best about doing science?


The discovery of new organisms and new facts about organisms in nature produces powerful "aha" moments - bright flashes in which our conceptual and theoretical understanding undergoes a sudden revolution. The rich information imbedded in a fossil specimen or living organism is the fuel and inspiration for new directions in science.

2. What is the focus of your research?


I am especially intrigued by unusual patterns in nature that are repeated in many different organisms. Repetition of pattern and structure often has a mathematical and aesthetic elegance that is expressed on the dramatically different scales of developmental, ecological, and evolutionary time.

3. Why is evolution an important part of your science?


Evolution provides the documentation of change and the explanation of how change occurs. Repetition of patterns may be explained by shared ancestry, by convergence on good structural solutions to functional problems, or by rules of development and growth. In any case, evolution is the grand arena in which we seek causal explanations of form and pattern in living and fossil organisms.


Chris Clark, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley

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1. What I like best about doing science?


I love figuring out why little birds have such unusual feathers! And, I love figuring out what's going on when an experiment is producing entirely unexpected results.

2. What is the focus of your research?


I study how hummingbirds use their tails in flight and how they produce sounds with their feathers. I look at both the physics of how the feathers make sounds, and also the behaviors that hummingbirds use to cause their feathers to produce sounds.

3. Why is evolution an important part of your science?


Evolution has generated a wide range of hummingbirds and tail shapes, So, understanding how evolution works allows me to study how and why hummingbirds produce sounds with their feathers and use their tails in flight.

 



David Wake, Dept of Integrative Biology and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley

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1. What I like best about doing science?


I enjoy two things. First, the thrill of discovery. When I first come to understand that what I have seen or learned is truly new -- that no-one ever knew it before. Second, the satisfaction of integrating my work with existing knowledge to formulate new syntheses -- to understand the linkages between disparate and sometimes seemingly esoteric facts and theory.

2. What is the focus of your research?


I study how lineages of animals evolve and diversify. I am interested in how species form and how structures (such as bones, tongues, brains, hands and feet) evolve different forms and functions associated with the increases of species.

3. Why is evolution an important part of your science?


For me there are two central biological questions: How do organisms work and how have they come to work. Studying function alone is at best half of the issue. For me THE organizing principle in biology is evolution -- how has this vast diversification of life come about?

 


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Rebecca Jabbour, Human Evolution Research Center, UC Berkeley

1. What I like best about doing science?


I like the way studying bones can make the past come back to life (at least a little).

2. What is the focus of your research?


I study skeletal variation in modern apes and humans so we can better interpret variation in the fossil record.

3. Why is evolution an important part of your science?


My work is motivated by an interest in evolution - specifically the evolutionary history of apes and humans, as documented in the fossil record. In addition, evolution provides the best explanations for many of the patterns of variation I observe in modern apes and humans.

 






Dr. Daniel I. Bolnick, University of Texas at Austin

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1. What is the focus of your research?

If you look closely at individual animals or plants from a given species, you will quickly begin to notice subtle differences among individuals. I am interested in understanding how this variation arises, and how it influences interactions among species - in particular the eating behaviors of sticklebacks (a small fish found in lakes in British Columbia).

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution determines the extent of variation within populations. Normally, natural selection acts to reduce variation by weeding out less-fit forms. However, in certain situations, natural selection can actually inflate the amount of variation. The logic is fairly simple: if you are competing to get food, you are at an advantage if you do something unique. In comparison, if you eat the same foods as everyone else, you'll experience a lot of competition. This is really an idea that is familiar to businessmen and entrepreneurs, but applied to other species. I have shown experimentally that competition for food creates natural selection favoring individuals that do something different from everyone else around them.

 

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Jeffrey Boore, Genome Project Solutions and the University of California Berkeley

1. What is the focus of your research?

Thanks to the technology developed for the Human Genome Program, the scientific community is now determining the complete genome sequences of many hundreds of organisms. Our work is in comparing these to better understand the diversity of life on earth and how it came to be that way. We measure the similarities and differences in these genomes in order to find the underlying genomic basis for the variation in other traits, whether biochemical, physiological, morphological, or behavioral.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

All living things are linked by descent from a common ancestor, having evolved into all of their diverse and wonderful forms. Nothing could explain the patterns we see except for the reality that all organisms are linked by descent, and it is only in this historical framework that this work, or any comparisons of biological features, has any meaning.

 

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Dr Richard Buggs, Department of Botany and Zoology , University of Florida

1. What is the focus of your research?

I work on a new plant species that originated about 80 years ago in the USA. It arose naturally through hybridization between two closely-related species (Tragopogon dubius and Tragopogon pratensis) that had been introduced to the Palouse region of the northwestern United States from Europe.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

My research helps us to understand the causes and effects of speciation (the development of reproductive barriers) in natural plant populations, and provides examples of evolution (change in population gene frequencies over time) in action. Evolution is what my research is all about.

 

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Ursula Goodenough, Washington University, St. Louis

1. What is the focus of your research?

We study the evolution of land plants from their green-algal forebears, focusing on the regulatory circuits that govern sexual differentiation and the transition from the haploid to diploid phase of the life cycle.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution is important because that's what we're studying! In addition, we often learn a great deal about a sex-related protein of interest by finding the genes encoding that protein family in other lineages and asking which portions of the protein are conserved (suggesting functional roles) and which are rapidly evolving (suggesting speciation-specific roles).

 

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Joseph Graves Jr., Dean of University Studies, North Carolina Ag & Tech State University

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research concerns the genetics and physiology of postponed aging and biological concepts of race in humans.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Biological theories of race in humans results from variation in our species that was produced by evolutionary mechanisms (natural selection and genetic drift.) I have examined claims that modern humans can be divided into biological races and found them lacking. Indeed, evolutionary theory helps us to understand why our socially constructed racial categories are so pernicious.

 

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Annalise Paaby (grad student), University of Pennsylvania

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research explores the evolution of lifespan. Why do we age? Individuals vary in how long they live, and the process of aging and senescence is, in part, genetically programmed.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Our complex biology is inherited from a long history of interactions among genes and environments. Understanding how genes interact with each other, and how the environment can exert selection pressures that favor certain genotypes over others, can help explain our inherited physiology.

 

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Joe Williams, Dept. of Ecology and Evolution, University of Tennessee

1. What is the focus of your research?

I am interested in how flowers first originated. Rather than study the attractive structures of flowers (such as petals) and their pollinators, I am interested in what goes on after pollination - this is called the fertilization process. There are a large number of innovations present in flowering plants that are expressed during the life history stage that I study.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

How did each of these features evolve? Darwin had a fascination with the origin of flowering plants - he wondered how this group could have become so diverse as to dominate the world's flora (over 90% of land plants are flowering plants) in such a geologically short time period. He thought that perhaps the evolution of insect pollination was a driving force in their spectacular diversification. My work suggests that many of the innovations of the fertilization process might be involved as well. I found that reproduction in flowering plant ancestors was probably very slow and inefficient, whereas with the origin of flowers, reproduction was sped up immensely. Faster and more efficient reproduction gave flowering plants new ecological opportunities and sped up the process of speciation.

 

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David Liberles, University of Wyoming

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research is in the field of evolutionary genomics. We work to understand both the functional changes in the evolutionary history of genomes (comparative genomics) that may underlie differences between species (for example, what makes a human different from a chimpanzee in terms of functional protein content?). We also aim to understand the evolutionary processes and physical constraints that govern the course of evolution.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution forms the basis for my entire research program and as a result, our work has practical offshoots as well. For example, we have been working with a pharmaceutical company on an evolutionary analysis of a protein expressed in reptile venom with activity to lower human blood glucose levels in treatment of type II Diabetes. We want to understand the evolutionary origins of this protein, how the function evolved, what the molecular basis for this was, and then use this information to design better pharmaceuticals.

 

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Michael A. Bell, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research concerns the evolution of armor and other anatomical structures in the threespine stickleback fish. Many stickleback populations in lakes and streams around the northern hemisphere have colonized those habitats from the ocean since glaciers drew back from the coastal lowlands less than 20,000 years ago. These habitats contain few strictly freshwater fishes because there has not been enough time for them to colonize these young, isolated habitats. Thus, any differences between the lake and stream populations and their marine ancestors must have evolved in place many times independently.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

We can see evolution in action over a few generations in modern populations and over longer periods in the fossil record, and the same genetic and ecological mechanisms that are at work in modern populations caused evolution in the ancient past. My research documented extensive variation of major skeletal traits in threespine sticklebacks, which has led to new research on the molecular genetics of skeletal development. This serves as a model for use in biomedical research. Thus, my work has led indirectly to research that may someday produce to cures for diseases of the skeleton.

 

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Dan Warren, Ph.D. candidate, University of California Davis

1. What is the focus of your research?

My primary research focus can be boiled down to a very broad question: "Why are animals where they are, doing what they are doing?" The more specific questions I study encompass animal behavior, the evolution of species' ecological requirements, and the reconstruction of evolutionary relationships between organisms from molecular data (phylogenetics).

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Any question in biology that begins with "why" ultimately has its answer in the theory of evolution by natural selection. While I could go out into the world and record as much data as I wanted about the phenomena I am interested in, the question of why they exist, and why they are as I see them, requires for its answer an idea of the forces that shape animals' phenotypes and behaviors in order to phrase hypotheses about their purpose. There is at present no alternative theory that even remotely approaches the theory of evolution by natural selection in its ability to generate scientifically testable hypotheses for approaching these sorts of questions, nor is there any alternative theory that can approach its ability to explain the phenomena that we see in the natural world. Put more succinctly: without the idea of evolution by natural selection, we can only observe. With the idea of evolution by natural selection, we can seek to understand. That is an immensely powerful thing.

 

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Robert Colautti, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto

1. What is the focus of your research?

Invasive species disrupt our native ecosystems, sometimes with adverse effects on human health and welfare (e.g. disease vectors, water quality, nature reserve integrity). These effects may be exacerbated by global climate change. My research focuses on the invasive plant, called purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), to understand when and why introduced species spread and reach high densities.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Ultimately, the ability of a species to spread and reach high abundances depends on its ability to survive and reproduce - its 'fitness'. Fitness also drives evolution, because individuals with higher fitness contribute more genes to future generations. Since fitness determines whether an introduced species establishes and how quickly it spreads, evolution is an important key to understanding why some species become invasive. My research suggests that warmer temperatures associated with climate change could allow purple loosestrife to evolve to spread more quickly and dominate marshland habitats in Canada and the northern United States.

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Dr. Niles Lehman, Department of Chemistry, Portland State University

1. What is the focus of your research?

I am studying the origins of life on the Earth. We are exploring the ability of simple RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules to spontaneously self-assemble into a self-replicating entity that can serve as a model for how life could have originated on the Earth 4 billion years ago in the absence of any pre-existing life forms from simple chemicals.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution is the centerpiece of our research efforts. Not only do living organisms evolve, but so too do populations of chemicals, provided they have hereditary properties. Our aim is to test the hypothesis that chemical evolution can lead to the properties that today would be considered integral to a living system.


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Jennifer L. Neuwald, Iowa State University

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research focuses on genetics of natural populations. The amount and distribution of genetic diversity can have a major affect on a population's ability to adapt to changes in the environment, such as increased temperatures, new diseases, or a new food source.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution, simply put, is decent with modification. My research uses the theories of evolutionary biology as a lynchpin for understanding how to interpret the patterns I find. I study how genetics of populations change over time.

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Kyle Summers, Dept. of Biology, East Carolina University

1. What is the focus of your research?

We work on the ecology and evolution of poison-dart frogs in Central and South America. We study phenomena that are of theoretical interest in the evolutionary biology community, such as the evolution of bright coloration (which may advertise toxicity and distastefulness to potential predators) and the evolution of mimetic resemblance between different species (which may provide further protection against attacks by predators).

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Evolution is central to our research - how and why different behavioral, morphological and life history traits have evolved in different populations and species is the central focus of our research.



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Holly M. Mortensen, National Center for Computational Toxicology, US Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, NC

1. What is the focus of your research?

The US EPA is using high throughput (HT) genomic methods, such as those used in testing pharmaceuticals, to screen chemicals of environmental concern. I am developing computational methods of predicting toxic effects and human health risks using that HT data, as well as providing a tool that will describe genes and diseases that are found in association with chemical mechanism of action.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

When understanding if a particular environmental chemical is a risk to the human population at large, we must understand how variable that chemical's target (e.g. gene or genetic variant) is both within and between species. To understand this variation, we must have an understanding of how evolution has affected that the genetic region of interest. How has this region evolved through time?



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Michele K. Nishiguchi, New Mexico State University

1. What is the focus of your research?

Mutualistic associations between bobtail squids and their luminescent bacterial symbionts (genus Vibrio) make excellent models to study the evolution of animal-bacterial associations. Since symbiotic bacteria are transmitted through the surrounding seawater to new hosts with every generation, it provides a unique opportunity to resolve how the ecology of free-living bacteria effects the make-up of these squid-luminous bacterial partnerships, particularly with respect to factors such as salinity and temperature.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

Clearly, there is a need to understand how quickly organisms such as bacteria can adapt to different environments; with the noticeable change in global climate, it is to our benefit to determine if these changes will increase or decrease biodiversity on a much larger scale. Our expected outcome of my research program is that adaptation occurs at a much higher frequency due to fluctuations in the environment, which then allows successful colonization of different host species, providing a new trajectory for bacterial speciation to occur.



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Stephen Thomas, Michigan State University

1. What is the focus of your research?

My research focused on a fungal disease of gypsy moths. The gypsy moth has devastated millions of acres of forest since its accidental introduction in the 1860s. To combat this pest, a fungus was identified in the early 1900s from Japan that was highly specific to the moth. Multiple attempts up through the early 1980s trying to introduce the fungus to the U.S. from Japan failed, but years later, from no known introduction, the fungus appeared and spread across New England in a single year. The fungus decimated multiple outbreak populations of gypsy moth across New England. With this apparent success, the fungus was introduced to Michigan where it was hoped it would control the moth population. However, the fungus was not as effective as was expected.

2. Why is evolution an important part of your science?

The questions of my research focused on evolution of pathogens. Was the fungus that was so successful in establishing in New England a more virulent strain than those that had been introduced earlier? Would the fungus remain an effective biological control in New England? At the heart of these questions is evolutionary theory: mechanisms for host and pathogen change over generations. This change is brought about through natural selection. Hosts that have any natural resistance to the pathogen will survive more than those that don¹t. Those that survive will have more offspring than those without the resistance. Overtime this can lead to a genetic change in the population . . . evolution. Without evolution, changes in disease or host would be due to chance. Disregarding evolution leaves humans ill prepared for understanding and coping with issues such as antibiotic resistance in tuberculosis and staphylococcal infections.

The following organizations contributed content to this theme:

American Institute of Biological SciencesScience ComedianDarwin Day Celebration The Clergy Letter Project

Flat Stanley ProjectNational Center for Science EducationNESCent: National Evolutionary Synthesis CenterThe Northwest School
RAFTUniversity of California Museum of PaleontologyThe Sloan Career Cornerstone CenterUnderstanding Evolution
Scientific American American Society of Human Genetics


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