By Emily Singer
In his fourth-floor lab at Harvard University, Michael Desai has created hundreds of identical worlds in order to watch evolution at work. Each of his meticulously controlled environments is home to a separate strain of baker’s yeast. Every 12 hours, Desai’s robot assistants pluck out the fastest-growing yeast in each world — selecting the fittest to live on — and discard the rest. Desai then monitors the strains as they evolve over the course of 500 generations. His experiment, which other scientists say is unprecedented in scale, seeks to gain insight into a question that has long bedeviled biologists: If we could start the world over again, would life evolve the same way?
Many biologists argue that it would not, that chance mutations early in the evolutionary journey of a species will profoundly influence its fate. “If you replay the tape of life, you might have one initial mutation that takes you in a totally different direction,” Desai said, paraphrasing an idea first put forth by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1980s.
Desai’s yeast cells call this belief into question. According to results published in Science in June, all of Desai’s yeast varieties arrived at roughly the same evolutionary endpoint (as measured by their ability to grow under specific lab conditions) regardless of which precise genetic path each strain took. It’s as if 100 New York City taxis agreed to take separate highways in a race to the Pacific Ocean, and 50 hours later they all converged at the Santa Monica pier.
The findings also suggest a disconnect between evolution at the genetic level and at the level of the whole organism. Genetic mutations occur mostly at random, yet the sum of these aimless changes somehow creates a predictable pattern. The distinction could prove valuable, as much genetics research has focused on the impact of mutations in individual genes. For example, researchers often ask how a single mutation might affect a microbe’s tolerance for toxins, or a human’s risk for a disease. But if Desai’s findings hold true in other organisms, they could suggest that it’s equally important to examine how large numbers of individual genetic changes work in concert over time.
“There’s a kind of tension in evolutionary biology between thinking about individual genes and the potential for evolution to change the whole organism,” said Michael Travisano, a biologist at the University of Minnesota. “All of biology has been focused on the importance of individual genes for the last 30 years, but the big take-home message of this study is that’s not necessarily important.”
The key strength in Desai’s experiment is its unprecedented size, which has been described by others in the field as “audacious.” The experiment’s design is rooted in its creator’s background; Desai trained as a physicist, and from the time he launched his lab four years ago, he applied a statistical perspective to biology. He devised ways to use robots to precisely manipulate hundreds of lines of yeast so that he could run large-scale evolutionary experiments in a quantitative way. Scientists have long studied the genetic evolution of microbes, but until recently, it was possible to examine only a few strains at a time. Desai’s team, in contrast, analyzed 640 lines of yeast that had all evolved from a single parent cell. The approach allowed the team to statistically analyze evolution.
Posted By F. Sheikh