Evolutionary biology looks into curious and complex processes such as natural selection that power diversity of life on Earth. Hence, it is a study into how we have become what we have. Here’re five evolutionary biologists of our times, helping us understand our evolutionary journey.
When Charles Darwin published his findings on evolution in ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1858, to no one’s surprise, it took the world by storm. Controversies, discussions and debates ensued as the theory shook the very fundamentals of the beliefs upon which the church was built. Infact, it was fearing such backlash that Darwin, who had developed the theory of natural selection by 1838, delayed its publishing by not one or two, but by 20 years! Today the world has more or less come to terms with the theory of evolution and Darwin is revered as the father of evolutionary biology. A field of study that set sail on a naval vessel and originated from an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador, evolutionary biology has today advanced by leaps and bounds. Almost two centuries down the line, who are the scientists creating ripples in this field today?
Let’s take a look.
1. Richard Lenski
Watching a movie might be easy but watching bacteria is surely not. Particularly so if you have been doing it for, say, three decades. Meet Richard Lenski, an American evolutionary biologist busy watching how the Escherichia Coli (E.Coli) population mutates. Essentially he is trying to reveal more secrets about why the world looks the way it does. We all can agree that every organism on earth today is a result of evolution. But during this process how did some mutations stick around while others did not? What was the reason? Lenski is trying to answer such questions through the study of multiple bacteria populations.
His work started in 1988 with 12 populations of E.Coli, now reaching up to 50,000 generations. He has been tracking the changes that have been happening to these 12 populations at the genetic level. The work got public attention when eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins mentioned it in his popular book, The Greatest Show on Earth. Lenski is a Friend of Darwin 2017 awardee and has made his mark in the study of digital evolution, an approach that details mutations with digital simulations. As he tries to unravel the ways evolutions work, to the 64-year-old scientist, the greatest show on earth is watching the bacteria grow.
2. Paul B Rainey
In his own words, the work of Paul B Rainey and his team concerns the population biology of bacteria, ranging from theoretical studies on the evolution of individuality, to experimental work on the origins of multicellularity, to predicting mutational routes to new phenotypes, to development of new ways of studying microbial communities, to the design and implementation of new technologies for top-down engineering of microbial communities. An active researcher in evolutionary microbiology studies, one of his most important studies is around selfish genetic elements (SGE) that can enhance their own transmission at the expense of other genes in the genome. Rainey’s work on SGE looks at how naturally occurring SGEs can be used to manipulate genes that underpin microbial communities which play a role in earth’s biological and geochemical processes.
3. Gregory Velicer
Travelling in a crowded bus irks us, yet we manage to cooperate to make the journey possible for all. What about cooperation and conflict in the microbial world? Gregory Velicer, a young researcher from Switzerland has been trying to answer this. His work mainly focuses on the evolution of a social behaviour of a group of bacteria called Myxobacteria based on cooperation and conflict. Velicer tries to understand how social interactions are shaped by genetic mechanisms and evolution has led to change in social behaviours. One area of his exploration is the benefit of cooperative behaviour in survival.
4. Sara Mitri
Sara Miti’s area of focus is understanding how ecosystems of microbes evolve over time, and the role of interactions between individual microbial cells in shaping them. The Mitri lab brings together multiple research methodologies from mathematical modeling to computer simulations to laboratory experiments into their explorations into the microbial world. Interestingly Mitri spent several years studying robotics and computing models before she turned to evolutionary biology. The larger picture that evolves out of Mitri’s studies is that with a deeper understanding of how cells interact, those interactions can be manipulated to be for the benefit of the cells, the environment and even human health in all likelihood.
5. Stephen Stearns
Your childhood and personal history play a huge role in defining who you are now. This framework is called Life History Theory (LHT) which Stephen C. Stearns follows in understanding evolutionary psychology. When large populations are subjected to strong selection, evolution speeds up. Stearns, as a young scientist, got curious about this theory and pursued another dimension of it – why evolution is slow sometimes? His work on the adaptation of the local population argues how geographic constraints play a major role in evolution. Stephen collaborated with physicist Richard Crandall to study the role of evolution behind delayed maturity. This evolutionary significance still inspires community ecology. He is also the sole author of “The evolution of life histories”.