March 28, 2005


Dances with fruit flies (Thomas Hayden, 3/28/05, US News)

The fly, at first, looks like nothing so much as a tiny matador. Now standing still, now feinting left or darting right, he circles the petri dish arena, waving a black-tipped wing at his quarry like a red cape. But he's a lover, not a fighter, and his dance is intended to induce the fruit fly equivalent of a swoon. Scientists can no more explain why female Drosophila biarmipes flies go gaga for manly markings than they can determine what it is that attracts teenage girls to Ashton Kutcher. But the spots--unheard of in biarmipes' s cousin, the widely studied lab fly D. melanogaster --are helping to shed light on even more vexing questions of animal evolution. Among them: How can species with nearly identical DNA turn out as different as biarmipes is from melanogaster, or as humans are from chimpanzees?

We're living at a strange moment in America. Once again, evolution is becoming a controversial topic. But while school boards are revisiting the 19th-century debate over whether evolution even happens, 21st-century scientists are beginning to show exactly how the natural phenomenon works. Using the powerful tools of molecular biology and comparative genomics, they're finding specific changes in the DNA that can account for 17,000 species of butterfly or why insects have only six legs instead of a dozen. And while some 55 percent of Americans balk at the idea that humans evolved at all, analysis of the genes that build our bodies shows our clear kinship not just to the apes but all the way back to bugs, worms, and beyond. Along the way, scientists are starting to find concrete explanations for everything from our large brains to just exactly how the fruit fly--or the leopard, for that matter--got its spots.

Sean Carroll, in whose University of Wisconsin-Madison laboratory the biarmipes flies danced, has been at the head of the new wave of evolutionary studies for two decades. An investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Carroll sets out in his engaging new book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful (W. W. Norton), to introduce us to the field he helped found: evolutionary developmental biology, or "evo devo." [...]

All fruit flies have the genes needed to make wing spots, including a gene for black pigment called, confusingly enough, Yellow. That gene is turned on at low levels throughout all fruit fly wings, but only male biarmipes flies have the characteristic spot. Writing recently in Nature, Carroll's research team reported finding mutations in a genetic switch for Yellow in biarmipes flies that allow a finer level of control; one part of the switch keeps gene expression low throughout the wing, while another cranks up expression at the tips, creating the characteristic spot.

It's just one small step in the twisting path of evolution, of course. But it's not hard to see how many such changes in gene switches--accompanied by even small survival advantages such as females who prefer spotted mates--could lead over time to a new species, with little change in the genes themselves. It's a principle that is found again and again throughout the animal kingdom, Carroll says, and one that should help solve one of the greatest biological mysteries of recent years. [...]

Speaking recently in his office--a space so comfortably cluttered it almost resembles a nest--sporting shaggy hair and dressed in jeans and sneakers, Carroll seems about as content as a man can be. But the critics of evolution--he calls them deniers--are really starting to get under his skin.

No wonder Mr. Carroll is upset; he's begged all the important questions and accidentally added weight to the arguments of his opponents, yet still folks don't agree with him. At the end of the day he and his cronies have used intelligent design to demonstrate that drosphila don't speciate no matter how much you isolate them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2005 7:59 PM

OJ: you missed the best part:

evo devo

What rock fan from Ohio could miss one of the great Classics of the late 70s:

Artist: Devo
Song: 'Jocko Homo'
Year-Date: 1976
Album: Q: Are We Hot Men? A: We Are Devo!
Genre: ?

They tell us that
We lost our tails
Evolving up
From little snails
I say its all
Just wind in sails
Are we not men?
We are devo!
Were pinheads now
We are not whole
Were pinheads all
Jocko homo
Are we not men?
Monkey men all
In business suit
Teachers and critics
All dance the poot
Are we not men?
We are devo!
Are we not men?
God made man
But he used the monkey to do it
Apes in the plan
Were all here to prove it
I can walk like an ape
Talk like an ape
I can do what a monkey can do
God made man
But a monkey supplied the glue
We must repeat
O.k. lets go!


"This is the band of the future."

"Of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most challenging and subversive of all."

With staggeringly catchy electro-pop riffs, Devo carved a niche that set them apart from the mish-mash of rock, punk, and new wave that surrounded them in the late 1970s...

Led by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, the overarching philosophical principle that drove them -- "De-evolution" -- engendered a theory that mankind, rather than progressing, was actually going backwards.

Their first major label album, produced by Brian Eno in 1977, was light years ahead of its time.


1974 Devo D-E-V-O was the brainchild of Akron,
Ohio's brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh Gerald and Bob Casale, who were looking to "D-evolution" modern music. Devo played many times at The Crypt Ohio.
In 1977 Devo caught the eye and ear of Brian Eno, who produced their first album: "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo." The album sounded great.
line being herked and jerked at unsuspecting moments, and featured songs with titles
like "Jocko Homo" "Mongoloid" and "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')". The album's centerpiece, however, was a tension-filled,brilliant version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction". While re-conceptualized covers are rote in this
post-modern age, in 1978 it was new ground.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 28, 2005 11:21 PM