Debunked by the Institute for Creation Research

Folks, it’s been fun. I feel like I had a pretty good run as a scientist. I met some amazing people, went to beautiful places, and learned things I never would have imagined (Hodgkinia, WTF?!). With all my frustrations and failures, I’ve never once regretted going back to school and becoming a biologist. But now I need to close the door on all of that and find a new way to make a living.

See, the main project I’ve been working on for the last six years, the one that was supported by a NASA postdoctoral fellowship, and that just came out in Scientific Reports, has been debunked:

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Reminder: tomorrow is the deadline for the Kato Memorial Bioscience Foundation travel fellowship

¥50,000 is ¥50,000! Applications for travel fellowships from the Kato Memorial Bioscience Foundation for the Fifth International Volvox Meeting are due tomorrow. These fellowships are to help non-Japanese students and postdocs travel to Tokyo for the meeting. ¥50,000 is around $500, a pretty good return for an easy application. Answer a few questions, send an email, and your trip could be $500 cheaper:

Applicants are required to submit a pdf file of the completed application form (download here) to Volvox2019 Office (E-mail: volvox2019 (at)

The Royal Society of Biology deadline is also coming up soon (March 1).

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Evil polyps enslave innocent algae using light

Imagine you’re swimming in nice, warm water, happily making your own food without a care in the world (other than zooplankton). You just need to store up enough starch before nightfall to hold you through the night so you can quit swimming, absorb your flagella, and wait for the sun’s return. You see a green light below, and you swim toward it. You can’t help yourself; your phototactic machinery is hardwired to respond.

Next thing you know, you’re captured by a giant, tentacled polyp. You look for a way out, but there is none. You’re stuck there for the rest of your life, forced to work and have the food you produce stolen by your coral overlord. Resigned to your fate, you absorb your flagella and get down to photosynthesizing.

Aihara et al. 2019 Fig. 2A

Figure 2A from Aihara et al. 2019. the coral Echinophyllia aspera and its algal captives under natural light conditions (Scale bar, 1 cm.).

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Convergence part 7: convergence in Volvox

Last year I wrote a series of posts on convergent evolution and misrepresentations of the history of the concept by proponents of intelligent design including Günter Bechly, Lee M. Spetner, Granville Sewell, and others. I didn’t intend for there to be a two-month gap before the final installment (nor am I sure this is the final installment), but here we are.

To quickly recap, I showed in the first three installments that

The Discovery Institute is producing a revisionist history. To hear them tell it, convergence is something that evolutionary biologists have either barely heard of or that they “invented” or “made up” to hide problems with the tree of life. Convergence “destroys the tree of life,” it “contradict[s] the [modern synthesis],” and it is “quite unexpected” to evolutionary biologists. All of that is a big, stinking pile of wrong. In reality, biologists since Darwin, and including Darwin, have always appreciated the importance of convergence, have written thousands of papers about it, and have included it in every evolutionary biology textbook I’m aware of.

I explained why the argument that convergence is evidence against common descent is daft, and I gave a spectacular example of convergent (or parallel) recruitment of life cycle genes in plants and brown algae. I also promised that I would write about convergent evolution in Volvox, which I have so far failed to do.

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Aquatic science orgs oppose changing WOTUS

The Trump administration is expected to announce reductions to the waters protected by the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule in a couple of hours. The change is expected to remove at least some wetlands, ephemeral streams, and headwaters streams from the waters covered by the rule.

According to MSNBC,

Mark Ryan, a lawyer at Ryan & Kuehler PLLC who spent 24 years as a clean water expert and litigator at the EPA, said water systems called headwaters in high regions of the country could lose protections under the new definitions being proposed by the Trump administration.

“I think the mining is going to benefit from this because mines tend to be up in the mountains near headwater systems,” Ryan said.

Miners may no longer need to apply for a permit before pushing waste from operations, such as rubble from mountain-top coal mining in the eastern United States, into some streams.

Howe Brook

Headwater stream in Baxter State Park, Maine.

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Convergence part 6: the deepest of deep homologies

You are more closely related to a mushroom than a kelp is to a plant. It’s strange to think about, but it’s true. Kelps seem very plant-like, with their root-like holdfasts, stalk-like stipes, and leaf-like blades. But kelps are brown algae, part of the stramenopile (or heterokont) lineage of eukaryotes, which are very distant from the land plants and their green algal relatives, all of which are within the archaeplastida (the direct descendants of the primary origin of chloroplasts). Mushrooms (fungi) and humans (animals), on the other hand, are both opisthokonts, practically cousins at the scale we’re talking about.

Pawlowski 2013 Fig. 1

Figure 1 from Pawlowski 2013. Deep phylogeny of eukaryotes showing the position of small eukaryotic lineages that branch outside the seven supergroups (modified after Burki et al. 2009; drawings S Chraiti). You are represented by a fish, which at this scale you might as well be.

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Ulvophyte multicellularity: the sea lettuce genome


Sea lettuce (Ulva sp.), Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC, February 28, 2011.

David Kirk called the Chlorophyte green algae “master colony-formers” because multicellularity has evolved so many times within this class:

Although members of most chlorophycean genera and species are unicellular flagellates, multicellular forms are present in 9 of the 11 chlorophycean orders (Melkonian 1990). Multicellularity is believed to have arisen independently in each of these orders, and in some orders more than once.

In contrast, multicellularity has probably only evolved once or twice in the probable sister group of the Chlorophyceae, the Ulvophyceae. So when numbers like 25 get thrown around for the number of times multicellularity has evolved, something like half of those times were in the green algae.

We know a lot less about how multicellularity evolved in the Ulvophyceae than we do in the volvocine algae within the Chlorophyceae. A big step forward in understanding ulvophyte multicellularity happened last week, though, with the publication of the Ulva mutabilis genome.

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A is for Algae

I got my copy of Jillian Freese’s A is for Algae earlier this week. Freese, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island, says the book is “Part birthday gift. Part #scicomm. Part stress relief.” It’s full of watercolor paintings of algae, mostly seaweeds but with some phytoplankton as well. Each species (one for each letter of the alphabet) is presented with its scientific name, usually a common name, habitat and biogeographic information, and some interesting factoids.A is for Algae

Warning: spoilers below the fold.

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Multicellularity in Science

I spent the last week of June backpacking in Baxter State Park, Maine. When I finally emerged from the woods, my first stop was Shin Pond Village for a pay shower, a non-rehydrated breakfast, and free internet access. Among the week’s worth of unread emails were a nice surprise and a not-so-nice surprise. The not-so-nice surprise was a manuscript rejected without review; the nice surprise was a new article by Elizabeth Pennisi in Science, which came out when I was somewhere between Upper South Branch Pond and Webster Outlet.

Upper South Branch Pond

Upper South Branch Pond, Baxter State Park, Maine. I spent two nights here.

The article, for which I was interviewed before Baxter, synthesizes recent work across a wide range of organisms that suggests that the evolution of multicellularity may not be as difficult a step as we often assume:

The evolutionary histories of some groups of organisms record repeated transitions from single-celled to multicellular forms, suggesting the hurdles could not have been so high. Genetic comparisons between simple multicellular organisms and their single-celled relatives have revealed that much of the molecular equipment needed for cells to band together and coordinate their activities may have been in place well before multicellularity evolved. And clever experiments have shown that in the test tube, single-celled life can evolve the beginnings of multicellularity in just a few hundred generations—an evolutionary instant.

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Origins of the sexes: Eudorina and Yamagishiella

Volvox and the volvocine algae have long been a model system for understanding the evolution of multicellularity and cellular differentiation, but more recently they’ve emerged as an important model for the evolution of males and females. Sperm-producing males and egg-producing females have evolved independently in most multicellular lineages, so understanding how and why this happens is crucial for understanding the evolution of complex life.

It’s a near certainty that the unicellular ancestors from which animals, plants, fungi, seaweeds, and other complex multicellular organisms evolved were isogamous. In other words, they were capable of sexual reproduction, but the gametes that fused to form a zygote were the same size (“iso” – equal; “gamous” – gametes). In each of these lineages, large and small gametes evolved, resulting in a condition referred to as anisogamy (unequal gametes).

One really interesting thing about anisogamy is that unlike other forms of cellular differentiation, which result from non-genetic differences, the differences between sperm-producing males and egg-producing females are often genetically controlled. The most familiar way this happens is through sex chromosomes, such as the XY system in most mammals and the ZW system in birds, but there are lots of variations on this theme (check out the duck-billed platypus for an odd example).

Last month Takashi Hamaji and colleagues reported new results related to the evolution of anisogamy in the volvocine algae. The article, in Communications Biology, describes the genetic basis of sex (or mating type) determination in two volvocine species, isogamous Yamagishiella and anisogamous Eudorina. Apart from this difference in gametes, Yamagishiella and Eudorina are otherwise very similar:

Hamaji et al. 2018 Fig. 3

Figure 3A&B from Hamaji et al. 2018. Sex induction and associated gene expression alternations in isogamous Y. unicocca and anisogamous Eudorina sp. a, b Asexual and sex-induced individuals of opposite sexes of Y. unicocca (plus/minus) (a) and Eudorina sp. (female/male) (b). Mating reactions (mixed, right panels) occurred after mixing induced cultures of the two sexes (middle panels). In Y. unicocca (a), clumping of the colonies and release of single-celled isogametes (arrowheads) were observed 1 h after mixing. In Eudorina sp. (b), sex induction treatment resulted in the formation of sperm packets and the packet dissociated into individual sperm that penetrated into a female colony (arrowheads) within 16 h after mixing. Scale bars, 20 µm.

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