Of Fungi, Santa, and Britney Spears

It's odd to be on this island that evokes images of Darwin and to hear talks in which 21st century genomics intersects 19th century ideas about naturalselection and evolution. For this reason, Mary Jane West-Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, chair of the unnamed afternoon session, dubbed it ?Interesting New Fields That Charles Darwin Might Have Liked? - rather than the buzzwordy evo-devo. One talk that Darwin would have liked, from Ken Wolfe of Trinity College

By | June 11, 2005

It's odd to be on this island that evokes images of Darwin and to hear talks in which 21st century genomics intersects 19th century ideas about naturalselection and evolution. For this reason, Mary Jane West-Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, chair of the unnamed afternoon session, dubbed it ?Interesting New Fields That Charles Darwin Might Have Liked? - rather than the buzzwordy evo-devo. One talk that Darwin would have liked, from Ken Wolfe of Trinity College in Dublin, superimposed genetic and genomic data on a phylogenetic tree of the fungi, weaving a tale of genome duplication and subsequent gene loss that paralleled speciation in the kingdom. It was an exciting foreshadowing for plant and animal evolutionary biology. ?Our knowledge of genome evolution in fungi is many years ahead of animals or plants. We have 25 genome sequences from fungi; it will be 2 to 3 years before we have 25 plant and animal genomes completely sequenced,? he said. The reason for the head start is the streamlined nature of fungal genomes-typically 200 times smaller than the human genome -- and the gene-by-gene colinearity among species. Wolfe's talk was interesting enough when he stuck to the phylogenetic map and gene descriptions, but then he abruptly announced a ?commercial break? and showed a slide comparing Santa Claus and the Coke symbol to Britney Spears and the Pepsi symbol. It was a rather brilliant analogy to two slightly different genomes merging and then jettisoning certain duplicates. Asking us to be business consultants, he next showed a slide illustrating several parameters: Bottling plants, trucks,advertising, flavor research, and a 1-800 helpline. Then the downsizing began. He kept both Coke and Pepsi bottling plants and truck fleets, got rid of Britney as spokesperson because he dislikes her, and kept Pepsi's flavor department based on the results of the Pepsi challenge (paradoxically a pre-Britney Pepsi ad campaign). But he considered the helplines equal, so either could go. ?In biologyspeak, for these activities, we have selection to retain both genes for bottling and trucks, only the coke gene for ads, only the Pepsi gene for flavor, but the helpline is a neutral loss,? he said. The Coke/Pepsi scenario effectively represented a doubling of an ancestral yeast genome from 5,000 to, briefly, 10,000, and then a pruning to 5,500. It was only part of the talk, but illustrated the power of coming up with a compelling analogy or metaphor that temporarily departs from the science. In the sea of slide-a-second Powerpoints that dominate so many scientific meetings, the simplicity and surprise of this tool was most welcome. Tomorrow is field trip day!

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