August 17, 2009

The new naturalists?

Some time ago I watched a documentary called Lord of the Ants (clips available online) about the brilliant Ed O. Wilson, a born Naturalist whom I've also had the pleasure of hearing in person, and I was struck by his enthusiasm for natural history and the traditional exploratory naturalist work. It fed my imagination and made me think about my own work as a biologist. I'm probably as far away as you can come from a field biologist, working as I do with online genome databases and DNA sequences, but I realized that maybe we still have a lot in common. After watching the documentary I reached for my ever present pad of post-it notes and jolted down "a naturalist in the new world of genomes?"

Note my amusement when I'm scanning through the latest issue of Bioessays and find the following passage in a commentary about recent findings in the field of transposable elements and conserved noncoding sequences (reference below).

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were naturalists. They observed diverse landscapes, noted heritable variations within species, and suggested that challenges and opportunities in the environment would favor the fittest variants. Wallace and Darwin did not, however, understand the source of the variations in morphology that they observed. Evolutionary theory grew out of attention to this variation, but early discussions of evolution generally referred only in passing to the mechanisms that generate variation (as random mutation), and instead focused on selection and drift.

It was not until the discovery of the structure of DNA, about a century after Darwin's Origin of Species was published, that the biochemistry of genetic variation could begin to be understood. However, over the course of the past decade, as genome sequences began to fill the literature, even the most molecular and computational of biologists have become like naturalists. They wander through diverse landscapes of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs, comparing genomes and wonder about the origin of the distinct classes of variation found there.

That's exactly right. For everyone that has spent some time wading through what seems to be never ending stretches of genetic code from several different species, prodding and probing here and there as you go, lifting up interesting or colorful stretches of DNA sequence, looking for new exciting genes perhaps or just trying to make sense of how it all comes together and how it all relates, the likeness to an ecological system is striking. It does require a measure of curiosity and an exploratory vein.

It's probably one of the most accurate descriptions of the kind of work that we do, and one that's easy to subscribe to.

Caporale, L. (2009). Putting together the pieces: evolutionary mechanisms at work within genomes BioEssays, 31 (7), 700-702 DOI: 10.1002/bies.200900067

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Daniel,

    Fascinating perspective.
    I selected your post as one of my "picks of the week" in molecular biology over at my blog (


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