New place, new project

Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta

Lodgepole pine, up close. (Flickr: J. Maughn)

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a new postdoctoral position as part of the AdapTree project at the University of British Columbia, starting in mid-August. The work I’ll be doing with AdapTree is a dramatic extension of the landscape genomic research I’ve done with Medicago truncatula, studying the genetic basis of adaptation to different environmental conditions. For AdapTree, the focal species are lodgepole pine — Pinus contorta ssp. latifolia — and two species of spruce — Picea glauca, P. engelmanni, and hybrids between them. Using genetic data from thousands of trees at hundreds of sites across British Columbia and Alberta, and growth and performance measurements in big climate-controlled experiments, I’ll get to help figure out what it all means for the future of northern forests.

Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the data, it’s going to be fantastic working with the AdapTree collaborators, which include many biologists whose work I’ve long known and admired: Sally Aitken, Michael Whitlock, Loren Rieseberg, Jason Holliday, Katie Lotterhos, and Sam Yeaman, among others. On top of all that, I get to do it at UBC, one of the premier North American universities for evolutionary ecology, and in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. Really, this will be a return to the northern Pacific coast community of biologists where I “grew up” as a graduate student at the University of Idaho, but I’ll be coming back with four years of great experience and learning from my time at Minnesota.

I can’t wait to get started.

No, E.O. Wilson didn’t invent the term “evolutionary biology”

Screenshot of the OED entry for "evolutionary biology."

Screenshot of the OED entry for “evolutionary biology.”

This View of Life, the evolution-centric online magazine, has a long “conversation” with myrmecologist E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the era following the “Modern Synthesis” in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and still one of the leading popularizers of evolution. It’s a long ramble, but worth your reading time, I dare say. Though, to be honest, I only found out about it because of this aside that TVOL highlighted in a tweet:

I can’t say Jim [Watson] and I were friends because I was the only younger professor in what came to be known as evolutionary biology—a term I invented, incidentally—as I started here in Harvard, and it was Jim Watson’s wish that I and other old fashioned biologists not leave the university but find a place elsewhere than the biological laboratories. So we were not on friendly terms. [Emphasis added.]

Wow! No one was using the term evolutionary biology before E.O. Wilson? That would be pretty nifty, but it’s also easy to fact-check. I did it by looking up the phrase in the online Oxford English Dictionary over breakfast. And I found a citation to this, on page 140 of St. George Mivart’s book Contemporary Evolution, an Essay on Some Recent Social Changes, published in 1876:

The second instance is that of the apparent conflict between evolutionary biology and Christian dogma, and indeed, no better test question as to the effect of scientific progress on Christianity could well be devised. [Emphasis added.]

The OED also has a citation from 1920, nine years before Wilson was born, which refers to work by T.H. Huxley, one of the contributors to the Modern Synthesis. [Correction: Whoops, nope, Thomas Henry Huxley isn’t the Modern Synthesis guy; that’s his grandson Julian. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS.] So, I’d go so far as to say that it looks like evolutionary biology pre-dates Wilson considerably, and was probably even in common use by the time he joined the faculty at Harvard.

Update: Following from Dave Harris’s response on Twitter, I see that evolutionary biology, as a fraction of all mentions of biology in Google’s Ngrams text database, does start climbing upward in the mid-1960s, coincident with Wilson’s early career. Wilson’s work surely contributed to that increase in the use of the term, though I think it’s quite unlikely he’s solely responsible.

An open letter to Jack Andraka, the Advocate, and, what the hell, OUT magazine while I’m at it

Jack,

I think I speak for the every gay science nerd when I say that we’re exceptionally proud to count you among us. The initiative you took, while still a high school student, to join a research lab and design a new rapid test for cancer is incredibly inspiring, and you’ve taken to the role of public advocate for science with aplomb.

So I was disappointed to read your recent op-ed on the website of The Advocate about the lack of queer role models in science — not because you’re wrong about the problem, but because you missed a big opportunity to start fixing it.

Continue reading

Life, um, finds a way

The LA Review of Books has just posted my review of Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene—a highly accessible book about how insect pests, weeds, disease organisms, wildlife, and even cancer cells evolve in response to the chemicals and drugs we use to contain them. I particularly focus on the skin-crawling case of bedbugs:

Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.

Go read the whole thing, and try not to scratch.

The Molecular Ecologist: Fishing for genetic signals of adaptation

Atlantic Salmon

Adult Atlantic salmon. (Flickr: Matt Hintsa)

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, I discuss a new paper that exemplifies how we’re going to be studying the genetics of adaptation in the age of high-throughput DNA sequencing—even if it doesn’t quite live up to that promise. It’s a study of adaptation in Atlantic salmon, whose lifestyle makes them uniquely suitable for a particuar sampling design:

Salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, and spend at least their first year in that environment before swimming downstream to the ocean, where they develop into reproductively mature adults. When they’re ready to mate, they migrate back from the ocean, up the river where they hatched to spawn at the site of their birth. Those major migrations and the transitions between freshwater and salt-water are likely to be major selective events for salmon, and they offer convenient times to catch and study salmon from roughly the same age-cohort: when they migrate downstream to the ocean, and when they return to their birth-river.

By taking genetic samples of juvenile salmon on their way out to sea, and then adults on swimming upstream to breed, you can test for genetic changes—adaptation—that has occurred over the course of the fishes’ life in the ocean. And that’s exactly what the authors of this paper did—go read the whole post to find out how it worked.

Proposed: A new gender-parity benchmark, you guys!

So Science, that lovable institutional behemoth of scientific publishing, has just produced a list of “top 50 science stars of Twitter” that manages to contain, by my count—I’ve triple-checked—four women. Eight percent.

Looking at the list, it hit me:

Seriously, though, I was in a gay bar this weekend with a better gender ratio than @sciencemagazine’s Twitter list: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2014/09/top-50-science-stars-twitter#full-list
@JBYoder, 7:50 AM – 17 Sep 2014.

I hereby propose this as a new, painfully minimum standard for gender parity: If I passed more women on a trip between the dance floor and the bar at the Saloon last weekend than are present in your speaker roster, reviewer panel, or unasked-for list of notables, you’re doing it wrong. In the interest of establishing this as a rigorous benchmark, I plan to immediately embark on a systematic survey of gay bar gender ratios, starting Friday night; interested collaborators should contact me through the usual channels.

Meanwhile, see the totally meaningful list of awesome animals Tom Houslay offers in the spirit of Science, and the big special issue on diversity in science just released by that other beloved institutional behemoth of scientific publishing, Nature.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: The key to a secure global future is evolution

Sunrise from the Fall River Road

A mountain vista in Colorado, with trees killed by pine beetles in the foreground. (Flickr: John B. Kalla)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I discuss a big new review article on all the ways understanding evolutionary biology will be critical for human health and development in the next hundred years:

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

I’m going to be citing this paper in every grant application I write for the next decade, I suspect. Go read the whole post, and download the original article from Science Express.

Stuff online, leftovers and lactation edition

Stuff online, funny five fingers edition