Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproducible Evidence of Evolution

Bacteria make major evolutionary shift in the lab (HT: Instapundit):
22:00 09 June 2008 news service
Bob Holmes

A major evolutionary innovation has unfurled right in front of researchers' eyes. It's the first time evolution has been caught in the act of making such a rare and complex new trait.

And because the species in question is a bacterium, scientists have been able to replay history to show how this evolutionary novelty grew from the accumulation of unpredictable, chance events.

Twenty years ago, evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski of Michigan State University in East Lansing, US, took a single Escherichia coli bacterium and used its descendants to found 12 laboratory populations.

The 12 have been growing ever since, gradually accumulating mutations and evolving for more than 44,000 generations, while Lenski watches what happens.

Profound change

Mostly, the patterns Lenski saw were similar in each separate population. All 12 evolved larger cells, for example, as well as faster growth rates on the glucose they were fed, and lower peak population densities.

But sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations – the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

Indeed, the inability to use citrate is one of the traits by which bacteriologists distinguish E. coli from other species. The citrate-using mutants increased in population size and diversity...

...Evidence of evolution

The replays showed that even when he looked at trillions of cells, only the original population re-evolved Cit+ – and only when he started the replay from generation 20,000 or greater. Something, he concluded, must have happened around generation 20,000 that laid the groundwork for Cit+ to later evolve.

Lenski and his colleagues are now working to identify just what that earlier change was, and how it made the Cit+ mutation possible more than 10,000 generations later.

In the meantime, the experiment stands as proof that evolution does not always lead to the best possible outcome. Instead, a chance event can sometimes open evolutionary doors for one population that remain forever closed to other populations with different histories.



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