Look what came in the mail yesterday!

Biological Individuality

A project started five years ago has finally borne fruit. In May, 2012 I joined a group of philosophers, historians, and biologists in Philadelphia for the Cain ConferenceE pluribus unum: Bringing biological parts and wholes into historical and philosophical perspective.” The meeting was organized by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard, with the goal

…to pursue the question: How can historians, philosophers, and biologists help each other to understand part-whole relationships in biology, both today and in the past?

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J. S. Huxley part 2: Volvox

Last time, I wrote about Julian Huxley’s 1912 book, The Individual in the Animal Kingdom, and his use of the volvocine algae as an example. I liked most of what he had to say, though I took issue with his assertion that

…all the other members of the family except Volvox…are colonies and nothing more—their members have united together because of certain benefits resulting from mere aggregation, but are not in any way interdependent, so that the wholes are scarcely more than the sum of their parts.

This is, of course, a matter of how we define a multicellular organism, but I think any definition that excludes, for example, Eudorina, is not a very useful one.

This time, I’ll look at the rest of what Huxley had to say about the volvocine algae, most of which is about Volvox:

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J. S. Huxley part 1: Gonium

Julian Huxley was one of the biologists responsible for the merging of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution in the early 20th century, the modern synthesis. His most influential work was Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, published in 1942. Thirty years earlier, though, he published a book on biological individuality, The Individual in the Animal Kingdom. Thankfully, the copyright on this book has expired, so it is now part of the public domain, and a scanned version is available for free in pdf and epub versions from Google.

Huxley Cover

Any book with Volvox on the cover can’t be all bad!

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The Volvox 2017 website is live


The website for the Volvox 2017 conference is up at www.volvox2017.org. Registration isn’t open yet, but there’s some information about the venue, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. The meeting is set for August 16-19, 2017.

The goal of the International Volvox Conference is to bring together international scientists working with Volvox and its relatives (aka Volvocales or volvocine algae). We cordially invite experimentalists and theorists interested in these fascinating organisms.

I’ll keep you posted!

Origins of the sexes: isogamy and anisogamy

Sex didn’t always involve males and females. I know it still isn’t always between males and females, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that there was a time when sex was happening, but there were no males and females. Sex existed before males and females, and many species are still doing it without them.

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Proxima b is a challenge to materialism, according to David Klinghoffer

David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, thinks the discovery of a relatively close, relatively Earth-like planet presents a challenge not only to evolutionary theory (Klinghoffer thinks every new discovery presents a challenge to evolutionary theory), but to any materialist worldview (“Put Up or Shut Up for Evolution? Nearest ‘Habitable’ Planet Found Orbiting Proxima Centauri“):

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Retrogenes in Volvox and Chlamy

The evolution of multicellularity in the volvocine algae appears to have happened primarily through co-option of existing genes for new functions. For example, the initial transition from a unicellular life cycle to a simple multicellular one involved the retinoblastoma gene, as Hanschen and colleagues elegantly demonstrated (see “The evolution of undifferentiated multicellularity: the Gonium genome“). A Volvox gene involved in cellular differentiation, regA, was likely co-opted from an ancestral role in environmental sensing, and a similar origin appears to explain the use of cyclic AMP for the signaling that causes multicellular aggregation in cellular slime molds (see “Volvox 2015: evolution“). 

Some of the changes leading to complex multicellularity, though, clearly did involve new genes. Two gene families involved in building the extracellular matrix that makes up most of a Volvox colony, the pherophorins and metalloproteinases, have undergone multiple duplication events leading to greatly expanded gene families (see “Heads I win; tails you lose: Evolution News & Views on Gonium, part 2“). One mechanism by which genes are duplicated is retroposition, in which a messenger RNA is reverse transcribed into DNA and inserted into the genome:

Fig S1A from Jakalski et al. 2016. Basic mechanism of retroposition. DNA is transcribed into a pre-mRNA by RNA polymerase, introns are spliced out, and a poly(A) tail is added to the 3′ end, resulting in a mature messenger RNA. The mRNA is then reverse-transcribed to DNA and inserted into a new genomic location.

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Graduate student position in the Nedelcu lab

If you’re a fan of Volvox and the volvocine algae and have recently received an undergraduate degree in biology or a related field, now’s your chance to get serious about studying them. Aurora Nedelcu is looking for a graduate student to join her lab at the University of New Brunswick. Professor Nedelcu is a major player in the Volvox community, having published foundational papers on diverse aspects of volvocine biology and organized the first two international Volvox meetings. This is a great opportunity to join a vibrant and growing research community:

A graduate student position is available in the laboratory of Aurora Nedelcu, in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, CANADA. Research in our laboratory is directed towards understanding general, fundamental issues in evolution – such as the evolution of multicellularity, development, cell differentiation, sex, programmed cell death, altruism.  Our research is rooted in the framework of transitions in individuality and evolution of complexity (at a conceptual level), and of cellular responses to stress (at a more mechanistic level).  The experimental model-system we are currently using is the green algal group, Volvocales (see our Volvocales Information Project; http://www.unbf.ca/vip). Highly motivated students with interests in either theoretical/genomics or experimental/molecular approaches, and previous research experience are encouraged to apply. Interested applicants should e-mail a CV, summary of research experience and interests, unofficial transcripts, and contact information for three referees to anedelcu@unb.ca.

Applicants should meet the minimum requirements for acceptance in the Biology Department Graduate Program (see http://www2.unb.ca/biology/Degree_Info/Graduate.html).

Problems with major transitions: Maureen O’Malley & Russell Powell respond

The Great Oxidation Event by Adelle Schemm.

The Great Oxidation Event by Adelle Schemm.

In a recent series of posts, I reviewed Maureen O’Malley and Russell Powell’s paper in Biology and Philosophy, “Major Problems in Evolutionary Transitions: How a Metabolic Perspective Can Enrich our Understanding of Macroevolution.” Although they made several good points, I thought that some of their criticisms were off the mark and that their proposed solution to the real and perceived problems with the major transitions framework was unsatisfying.

Drs. O’Malley and Powell are both heavy hitters in the philosophy of biology, and as I usually do when I dig deeply into someone else’s paper, I invited them to respond to my criticisms. They kindly provided a thoughtful rebuttal and permitted me to post it here. I’ll have more to say later, but for now I’ll just say that they make some good points and (most importantly) fairly represent my arguments. As usual for guest posts, I have made no edits to the content of their response, only formatted and added links:

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