Where Do Genes Come From? Part 2: De novo Genes

Author: Bryan Moyers

Editors: Theresa Mau, Alex Taylor, and Kevin Boehnke

“The probability that a functional protein would appear de novo by random association of amino acids is practically zero.” ~ Francois Jacob, 1977

If you’ve ever gotten into arguments about evolution, you may have heard the argument that goes something like this: A new gene randomly forming is as improbable as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a working 747. The above quote by Francois Jacob shows that scientists have been pretty skeptical about this idea, too.

But something seeming unlikely doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. As we learned last time, most mutations are harmful, and most gene duplications are lost—but the rare times when they are beneficial, a new gene can have a huge effect on species survival.

So, is it possible that a protein-coding gene might form randomly? Continue reading “Where Do Genes Come From? Part 2: De novo Genes”

Of Sporks and Scorpions: Where Do Genes Come From? (Part 1)

Author: Bryan Moyers

Editors: Theresa Mau, Alex Taylor, and Kevin Boehnke

What exactly separates us from other animals?  For that matter, what makes any species or group of species special?  How is life so diverse?  How can cephalopods camouflage themselves so well, and how did platypuses become so bizarre?

Part of the answer is in genes.  Genes are sections of DNA that perform a specific function, usually after being translated into proteins by special cellular machinery.  Every species has genes that code for proteins, but different species have different numbers of genes. Humans have around 20,000, fruit flies have around 18,000, and the tiny water-flea has around 31,000 genes. Different sets of genes produce animals with different structures and functions.

Continue reading “Of Sporks and Scorpions: Where Do Genes Come From? (Part 1)”

Interpreting ancient DNA: Not so easy a caveman could do it

Author: Brooke Wolford

Editors: Alex Taylor, Jimmy Brancho, Bryan Moyers

Imagine the year is 1856 and you are toiling in a quarry in the Neander Valley, a few kilometers from Düsseldorf, Germany. Strangely, something is abruptly sticking out of the landscape. You dig around and find ribs, a skull, and other bones—your best guess is that you have stumbled upon the final resting place of a bear. However, what you have actually found are the first identifiable remains of ancient hominins, later named Homo neanderthalensis.

Continue reading “Interpreting ancient DNA: Not so easy a caveman could do it”

Why “cute” matters

By Irene Park

Life can be exciting sometimes, but it can also just be downright stressful. The dinner event that took me two weeks to plan is attended by only a quarter of the people on the guest list, my to-do list never gets shorter, my car suffers yet another bump in the parking lot, and so on.   

There are many ways that I deal with stress—such as exercising, listening to music, and hanging out with friends. But I have one secret way to de-stress that I usually don’t talk about at work: watching videos or looking at pictures of cute animals, like this one or this one, that melt my heart and force me to let out a huge “awwwww.”

Continue reading “Why “cute” matters”

Evolvability: The race against extinction

By Bryan Moyers

It’s easy to think that evolution only works over long periods of time.  As much as 4.1 billion years ago, life began on Earth.  Some 420 million years ago, animals found their way onto land. Around 65 million years ago, an asteroid wiped out most dinosaurs. Two million years ago, our genus, Homo, emerged.  It almost seems like evolution is a strictly theoretical field.  After all, evolution doesn’t affect things in our lifetime…  right?

Continue reading “Evolvability: The race against extinction”