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NESCent symposium covers applied evolution

A chilling tale of science, romance, politics, and death in the Soviet Union set the stage for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center’s (NESCent’s) third annual Darwin Day Symposium, held on 21 February at the Sigma Xi Center in Durham, North Carolina. The birthday boy himself was rarely mentioned; rather, the event emphasized modern applied evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” But, as speaker Fred Gould pointed out, evolution has become far more than a way to make sense of things. “Today, your quality of life depends on application of a rigorous understanding of evolution,” he argued. And thus began a series of talks that addressed evolutionary approaches to practical challenges in agriculture, disease, and conservation.

But first, Gould provided the opening historical overview—a convoluted story centered on Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) and his nemesis, state-supported pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976). Vavilov is best known for his studies of global crop evolution and diversity, as well as his efforts to breed better cereal crops based on Mendelian genetics. Lysenko, on the other hand, is remembered as a proponent of crackpot notions about the inheritance of acquired traits. Despite his more valid scientific approach, Vavilov fell out of favor with socialist leaders and died of starvation in prison, after criticizing Lysenko’s unfounded claims. Gould’s account (like this recent article in The New York Times) was a clear reminder that the practice of science has been, and still is, shaped by its political and ideological milieu.

“You trashed our heroes,” lamented one audience member after hearing how the evolutionary giants Ronald FisherFrancis Galton, and J.B.S. Haldane supported eugenics or Lysenkoism. But Gould and the other speakers were ready to add their own stories of how politics and ideology affect the way they fund or present their work. Gould, for instance, believes that genetically engineered insects can be used to manage medically and economically important insect pests. But he worries that this approach will meet with resistance because of current attitudes toward genetically modified crops and the big businesses that market them.

Barbara Schaal encountered a different kind of roadblock in her work on the evolutionary genetics of cassava. Although it is a dietary staple in much of the developing world, cassava lacks many important nutrients. Millions would benefit from an improved cassava—but because it is not a cash crop and is not grown in the United States, Schaal found it difficult to fund her initial research. Eventually, her team produced molecular phylogenies of cassava and its wild relatives to pinpoint the crop’s likely origin in the Brazilian Amazon. There, they discovered that villagers were growing varieties with vitamins, pigments, and sugars unknown in the common domestic cassava. Some of those varieties are now involved in a project, funded by the Gates Foundation, to produce a nutritionally complete cassava for widespread cultivation.

Daniel Faith came all the way from Sydney, Australia, to discuss how evolutionary biology can help prioritize conservation areas. His research is part of a growing body of work that highlights the importance of plant phylogenetic diversity, rather than total species diversity, in preserving the characteristics of an ecosystem. Regions with the greatest phylogenetic diversity include more distantly related species and represent evolutionary history more completely—even if they include fewer total species. Faith argues that phylogenetic diversity should, therefore, inform conservation decisions, but he also talked about the challenge of communicating and applying the results without embracing a “naïve efficiency” that sanctions extinction as long as phylogenetic diversity is preserved.

Katia Koelle left the macroscopic world of plants and entered the invisible realm of viruses. She described how an improved understanding of rapid viral evolution can inform efforts in disease control. And in an excursion from the applied theme of the day, Steven Benner talked about how he and his colleagues use evolutionary trees to infer the sequences of ancestral proteins. By recreating those ancestral proteins and studying their function, Benner tries to make evolutionary “just so” stories more concrete.

Although free and open to the public, the symposium drew a largely academic crowd of biology students, faculty members, and postdocs. About 80 people sacrificed at least part of a sunny Saturday to sit in a dim auditorium and take in the talks.

NESCent plans to post video of the symposium online—watch the symposium site for updates.