Volvox 2015 poster deadline extended

The deadline for poster abstracts for the Third International Volvox Conference has been extended to July 25th (the website says June 25th, but the organizers assure me that it is July). Registration is open until July 15th, so there is still time if you’d like to join us in Cambridge!

The preliminary program is here.

AbSciCon day 4: Mars, life, and Mars life


I stepped out of my comfort zone a bit this morning and went to a session on Mars (okay, there weren’t any biology talks). This is far outside of my expertise, so if I say something outrageously wrong, feel free to set me straight in the comments (actually, you can always do that). I’ve never really given up on the idea of life on Mars. I remember the Viking missions and the ambiguous* results of their biological experiments, and I’m still surprised that none of the subsequent robotic missions have followed them up. I think there are better candidates further out in the Solar System, but Mars is a lot easier to get to.

[Read more…]

AbSciCon day 3: the tape of life

When I was in my 20’s, out of college and largely floundering, my dad lent me a paperback copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. I had occasionally enjoyed Gould’s column in Natural History, but I lacked the background to understand much beyond that (my undergrad was in political science). Wonderful Life got me interested in evolution, and I started reading other popular books, including more of Gould’s, Dawkins, Simon Conway Morris (the anti-Gould), etc., and pretty soon I found myself in Chris Parkinson‘s lab working on a master’s degree. This is all just to say that this particular book had a big influence on my life, and my first year in Montana was punctuated (see what I did there?) by a trip to Yoho National Park to see the Burgess Shale, the nominal topic of Wonderful Life.

One of the central arguments of Wonderful Life (and others of Gould’s works) was that the outcome of evolution is inherently unpredictable. Contingency, which can be interpreted as true randomness, stochasticity, or sensitive dependence on initial conditions, plays a large role in Gould’s view. Rarely at a loss for a good metaphor, Gould claimed that if “life’s tape” were rewound to some arbitrary time in the past and played again, the outcome would almost certainly be different from the first run.

This idea of ‘rewinding the tape of life’ has become a mainstay of discussions about evolutionary processes. Many of these discussions revolve around the question of how contingent and how deterministic are evolutionary outcomes, and this was the topic of two AbSciCon sessions chaired by Betul Kacar and Rika Anderson.

[Read more…]

AbSciCon day 2

I didn’t make it to many talks yesterday, spending a good part of the day in meetings, including a meeting of the NASA Postdoctoral Program fellows and alumni. The plenary by Nicholas Hud and Rachel Whitaker was fascinating. I’m not sure it lived up to the very ambitious title, “The origin and subsequent evolution of life,” but it did give some ideas about the transition from prebiotic chemistry to cellular life.

Betul Kacar and Rika Anderson’s session “Chance and necessity: from molecules and viruses to cells and populations I” was the most interesting to me. James Cleaves asked and (partly) answered the question ‘is the set of biological molecules on Earth the best or even the only possible set?’ For RNA at least, there are a huge number of closely related, stable molecules that, by all appearances, should operate just as well as the canonical ribosides that all life on Earth actually uses. If so, it would suggest that the particular molecules that polymerize into RNA are more of a ‘frozen accident’ than anything inevitable.

[Read more…]

AbSciCon day 1

Jennifer Pentz, Dinah Davison, and Cristian Solari enjoying a glass of wine.

Jennifer Pentz, Dinah Davison, and Cristian Solari enjoying a glass of wine.

I’m in Chicago for the biennial Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon). This is always (well, it’s my second time) a fun one, with topics ranging from origins of life to proposed interplanetary missions. I took the train from Whitefish, Montana, which is a bit of an adventure in itself.

[Read more…]

Chlamy song

Posts may be thin this week. I am preparing a talk for AbSciCon and a manuscript that’s due Monday. Saturday morning, I will board the Empire Builder in Whitefish for a 30-hour ride to Chicago (no doubt some of the manuscript will be written on the train).

Meanwhile, here’s a song about Chlamydomonas (skip to 1:05 if you don’t want to hear the intro).

Volvox 2015: early registration deadline extended

Hey slackers,

If you procrastinated on registering for the Third International Volvox Meeting, you’ve been granted a reprieve: the early registration deadline has been extended to the end of May.  After that, it goes up by £50 (around $80). This has been a great meeting in the past, and this year promises to be even better. The conference kicks off with a collecting trip and includes sessions on life cycles, development, biophysics, evolution and ecology, genetics, phylogenetics and taxonomy, and genomics (program). At £250 for regular registration including accommodation (£180 for students and postdocs), this is a great deal. So if you can use an extra $80, go ahead and register before the end of May.

Here is a pdf version of the meeting poster.