In The Field

ASCB: A carnival of vice

I never would have guessed that a cell biology meeting would be such a carnival of vice: singing, dancing, unnatural sex in hotel rooms…all before noon on a Sunday morning!

The three scientists perpetuating such debauchery had good intentions. They were all invited to share their discoveries about the nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty workings of evolution.

And, fascinating as it is, sometimes evolution is a dirty business, as geneticist Sean Carroll showed with a racy video of fruit fly mating rituals. The video captured an eager fruit fly male trying to entice a reticent female to mate by dancing frenetically in front of her with outstretched wings. This “Flies Gone Wild” fare showed how small cosmetic differences can have a big impact. The dancing fruit fly has spotted wings. But another fruit fly species with undecorated wings doesn’t do the same showy mating dance. The spot-winged fruit flies have evolved their adornment along with a dance to showcase it.

David Kingsley of Stanford described his group’s work with tiny fish called sticklebacks. To study how these fish have evolved, he and his students go to far-off locales like the Canadian Northwest Territories, where they catch different species of sticklebacks and “cross” them. This is a polite way of saying that the scientists artificially fertilize eggs of one species with sperm from another. The dirty business happens in buckets of water in nameless hotel bathrooms.

And Erich Jarvis of Duke University talked about his research on the vocal talents of species like birds, whales and people. Of course, he had to demonstrate his own quite eminent vocal abilities by imitating a finch mating call during his talk.

These scientists offered a fascinating glimpse into one of the triumphs of biology: a new ability to link genes to physical characteristics to the process of evolution. For instance, Carroll and his team have figured out how the decorated fruit fly’s spots evolved: instead of inventing a new gene that makes a spot of color, the spotted fly simply evolved a switch to turn on an existing gene, so that it now makes a pigment spot.

For the first time ever, scientists like Carroll, Kingsley and Jarvis are learning how evolution works to create new species from old genes. That’s entertaining enough on its own, but a little song and dance routine never hurts.


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