Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evolution in action

I just came across the single coolest evolution study I've seen in a very, very long time: Richard Lenski's E. Coli long-term evolution project. Here's the abstract of Lenski et. al.'s forthcoming PNAS article on this work:
The role of historical contingency in evolution has been much debated, but rarely tested. Twelve initially identical populations of Escherichia coli were founded in 1988 to investigate this issue. They have since evolved in a glucose-limited medium that also contains citrate, which E. coli cannot use as a carbon source under oxic conditions. No population evolved the capacity to exploit citrate for >30,000 generations, although each population tested billions of mutations. A citrate-using (Cit+) variant finally evolved in one population by 31,500 generations, causing an increase in population size and diversity. The long-delayed and unique evolution of this function might indicate the involvement of some extremely rare mutation. Alternately, it may involve an ordinary mutation, but one whose physical occurrence or phenotypic expression is contingent on prior mutations in that population. We tested these hypotheses in experiments that "replayed" evolution from different points in that population's history. We observed no Cit+ mutants among 8.4 x 1012 ancestral cells, nor among 9 x 1012 cells from 60 clones sampled in the first 15,000 generations. However, we observed a significantly greater tendency for later clones to evolve Cit+, indicating that some potentiating mutation arose by 20,000 generations. This potentiating change increased the mutation rate to Cit+ but did not cause generalized hypermutability. Thus, the evolution of this phenotype was contingent on the particular history of that population. More generally, we suggest that historical contingency is especially important when it facilitates the evolution of key innovations that are not easily evolved by gradual, cumulative selection.
Everyone: this is now the go-to study when any silly creationist claims "evolution hasn't been observed". Also, be sure to mention Lenski's work when the "micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution" objection comes up and point out that the ability to metabolize citrate was used before this study was conducted to distinguish between bacterial species.

Interestingly, the path dependence and contingency of the evolutionary sequence in this study at least partially vindicates Stephen Jay Gould's view (in Wonderful Life and elsewhere) that if you could replay the "tape of life", you'd get dramatically different results. The authors discuss Gould's view approvingly, and conclude their discussion with:
In any case, our study shows that historical contingency can have a profound and lasting impact under the simplest, and thus most stringent, conditions in which initially identical populations evolve in identical environments. Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
(See also: Carl Zimmer's take and the New Scientist article).