I study adaptation.

I study adaptation

or the evolutionary process that allows organisms to better themselves through traits that increase survival or reproducibility.

Why am I interested in this process? The short answer is that I find the products of this process to be

ASTOUNDING.

If you were to go look outside your window right now, you will see first-hand why adaptation is astounding. You may see birds flying overhead, trees and plants growing by the side of the road, ants scavenging for food, the neighbor’s dog barking and a mosquito that just snacked on your blood. You are looking at the DIVERSITY of life on this planet.

The question that keeps me up late at night and keeps me feeding the data monster is

WHERE DID ALL THIS DIVERSITY COME FROM?

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil Tyson DeGrasse Tyson in a response to a reader of TIME magazine shared the most astounding fact he could share with us about the universe. I implore you to watch the powerful video surrounding his response.

Dr. DeGrasse points out that we are not just in the universe or apart of the universe,

the universe is in us.

We are all connected just by being alive. All life on this planet shares the same ingredients and originates from the same collection of elements condensed into this one spot in our universe.

Credit goes to NASA and the Hubble space program. 

Credit goes to NASA and the Hubble space program. 

Putting aside the mind-boggling event producing first life on this planet, I find it astounding that life could proceed from a single species of a simple organism to all the diversity found outside your window.

Considering that life has been evolving on this planet for ~2 billion years, studying an evolutionary process is inherently difficult. If we only live for ~100 years, how can we study a process that takes such a long time? How can we learn anything without using a time machine?

The evolution of man from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/

The evolution of man from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/

I would argue there are really two broad approaches: retrospective and experimental.

Retrospective relies looking at the diversity that already exists and determining which organisms share evolutionary history. For example, humans and monkeys.

Experimental utilizes organisms that grow quickly (i.e. bacteria) to study evolution-in-action. I utilize an experimental approach using bacteria and I will post again about how and why this approach works.

Bacteria growing in small glass jars. 

Bacteria growing in small glass jars. 

Both approaches rely heavily on examining DNA or blueprint of organisms to make conclusions on relatedness. How does this work? For an example, consider your favorite fiction author. Although each book is unique, your favorite author may utilize common themes, language and style that you could recognize. DNA works the same way.

Related organisms will carry traces within their DNA that relate back events long since passed that we can track. Amazing what you can learn just from looking at the DNA.

 

Stay tuned for more as I delve into more on these topics.