Category Archives: evolution

Pumpkin Eater

Other than the turkey itself, no other foodstuff says Thanksgiving like pumpkin. Notably, both the turkey and the pumpkin are native to the Americas. Turkeys and pumpkins both were supposedly components of that first meal shared by native Americans with the colonists. Pumpkin pie is so ubiquitous that the combination of spices used to flavor it – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger – have come to be called pumpkin spice, and that flavor shows up in a number of the products we consume this time of year.

Pumpkins are in a large family, Cucurbita, with over 900 species. These species include gourds, winter and summer squash, all sorts of melons, and even cucumbers. Native Americans over thousands of years transformed what we know today as a Pumpkin from a tennis ball sized gourd with a very bitter taste.

As are so many other things we eat, pumpkins were made palatable via selective breeding. Pumpkins originated in Central America, and seeds of domestic Pumpkins dated to 8,000 years Before the Current Era (BCE) have been found in the highlands of Mexico. Softer, sweeter pumpkins were chosen from the wild or selected from purposeful plantings. This process continues to this day. Burpee’s Catalog offers 26 varieties of pumpkins.

The story of the post-human-manipulation pumpkin is interesting in and of itself but the natural history of the pre-humanpumpkin is also exciting. There is evidence that megafauna: mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, etc., were an important part of the pumpkin’s story. Deposits of mastodon dung dated to 30,000 years ago contained squash seeds. The survival of the seeds after passage through the digestive tract of the megafauna provided a means of dispersal and fertilization which is valuable mechanism for evolutionary success.

It is quite likely that the bitter taste is important to this story. The bitterness of the ancestral pumpkin was due to compound called Curcubitacin which not only imparted the bitter taste but was also toxic. Plants and animals have been duking it out over billions of years. Plants have evolved to produce a great number of toxins to prevent herbivores from damaging their reproductive parts or seeds.

Had small mammals eaten these squash, they surely would have also eaten the nutritious seeds. And here is where the bitterness comes in. Modern gene sequencing has shown that among mammals at least, there is a correlation between sensitivity to the bitter taste and size. Sampling animals from rodents to elephants has shown that the smaller the animal, the greater the sensitivity to bitterness. Small mammals such as rodents avoided the bitter plants leaving them to the megafauna.

The effect is that early pumpkins allied with the megafauna to promote a type of mutualism. The megafauna got the benefit of the pumpkin as food while the pumpkin benefited by dispersion/fertilization. The demise of the megafauna would have been a problem for pumpkins, but luckily humans came along and partnered up. Pumpkins are now cultivated around the world, a range far in excess of its ancestral home.


Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Darwin’s Finches

The Galapagos Islands constitute a small group of about a half a dozen islands 600 miles off the coast of South Ameria. The total land area is a scant three thousand square miles, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. The islands are quite arid, averaging only two inches of rainfall a year. They are essentially the cones of volcanoes which arose from the sea a few million years ago.

The archipelago is most famous as a world heritage site and most of the islands are a national park. As a province of Ecuador, the islands are managed mainly and very carefully for preservation and tourism.

One of the first and certainly most notable “tourists” was Charles Darwin. In 1831, Darwin, as a 22-year-old naturalist and recent college graduate signed on to the HMS Beagle for a five-year sail around the world. The Beagle surveyed much of the coast of South America, including the Galapagos. Darwin’s time was spent observing and collecting specimens of the local flora and fauna.

As a geologically young island group, the flora and fauna found their way by air and sea. Sea birds flew, sea lions swam, and a few reptiles and small mammals “rafted” to the islands. When Darwin arrived he noted that there were very few passerines, what we call perching birds or songbirds. Of the passerines, the majority were finches – finches not seen anywhere else in the world. There are now seventeen species of finches recorded on the Galapagos.

Darwin’s observation of the finches was the seminal study that lead to the organizing tenet of biology – descent with modification. Only a single species of finch exists on the west coast of South America, the likely origin of the Galapagos finches. Darwin’s conjecture was that a single species of finch arrived accidentally on the island group.

With local no predators and few competitors, the finches thrived. Through adaptive radiation, they filled many different niches based on the size and shape of their beaks. Birds with big, strong beaks could crack larger seeds, smaller-beaked birds ate smaller seeds. Birds with narrow, pointy bills fed on insects. There is even a species of finch appropriately called the vampire finch that has adapted to pecking the tails of sea birds to drink their blood!

In his first book, “The Voyage of the Beagle,“ he noted “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gros-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.”

The speciation of these finches is a microcosm of evolution on our planet. Life began over three billion years ago, and for about two billion of those years existed as single-celled organisms much like today’s bacteria. Over time more complex organisms evolved to form the major groups of plants and animals. These discoveries are the essence of science – small careful observations can lead to profound conclusions.
Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Evolutionary Views

Acceptance of Darwin’s brilliant deduction on evolution as the source of all biological diversity was brought to the world in 1859 with the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Now, almost 160 later, not all are convinced. The problem of accepting, really a matter of understanding, evolution becomes the sharpest when considering human origins.

All religions have their own take on the origin of mankind, and there are thousands of different stories. Abrahamic religions dominate with over half the world’s population and share the story of Adam and Eve. That said, much of modern religious thought sees no intrinsic conflict with evolution, but fundamentalist wings of many religions persist in denying what is obvious to science.

The United States is arguably the most scientific nation in the world based on the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications. Simultaneously, it is one of the more backward nations of the developed world with 4 in 10 adults believing that God created man in his image, with no evolutionary if, ands, or buts.

Besides the religious conflict about human origins is the problem of diversity itself. Who would ever have guessed that a whale is just a proto-cow that wandered back into the sea and decided to stay? Or that today’s chickens are yesterday’s dinosaurs. Many incrementally small changes over long periods of time have created the diversity we see today. We obviously can’t run experiments over billions of years to prove the concept once and for all, but experiments which prove evolution can be done in real time over the course of just a few years.

Johnathan Losos in his book “Improbable Destinies” described two such studies, one with guppies and one with lizards that clearly demonstrate how mutations and natural selection impact diversity.

The guppy study involved different populations of guppies in streams in Trinidad. It was observed that guppies in pools above waterfalls were much more flamboyant with colorful spots compared to guppies living in pools below waterfalls where drabness prevailed. The hypothesis was that the colorful guppies enjoyed an essentially predator free environment. Those below the falls were in pools which contained predators and therefore only the bland survive.

A simple but elegant experiment over the course of four years showed that transferring colorful guppies to a downstream pool free of other guppies but with predators causes the descendants to become much less gaudy and therefore less likely to be preyed upon. Random mutations among the guppies that produced less visible descendants were less likely to attract attention of predators.

The lizard study, actually brown anoles, also employed moving a population from one isolated locale to another. In this study the anoles from one small island were transferred to other small islands some with and some without predators. In a few short seasons, the anoles’ descendants on the islands with predators had shorter legs that allowed more facile movement into the upper branches of shrubs. Predation was the selective pressure, mutations allowed for the variance in leg length.

Real evolutionary morphological changes can be observed in a short time period, so now just imagine what kinds of changes can occur given millions and billions of years with different mutations and different selective pressures.

Charles Darwin (and Alfred Wallace who independently came to the same conclusion as Darwin) were right. We humans are evolutionarily related to every other living thing on the planet.

The Eyes Have It

Charles Darwin published the “Origin of Species” in 1859 and established evolution as the central organizing principle of biology. The molecular basis of evolution became clear about a century later with the understanding of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid – better know as DNA.

DNA is the stuff of inheritance, and changes in DNA are the stuff of mutations and ultimately evolution. The code of life is defined by a simple alphabet consisting of only 4 letters and a grammatical structure which demands words can only be three letters long. Although this means there are only 64 words (called codons) in the DNA dictionary, “sentences” in the genetic code can be crazy long, literally tens of thousands of words long. The functional unit of DNA are strings of codons called genes which specify instructions about life.

Most importantly, the code is shared by all life. The codons mean the same thing in an aardvark and a zebra, from simple bacteria to you and I. Closely related organisms have closely related sequences of codons. This has allowed confirmation or rearrangement of the cladistic relationships of life. Not only can whole organisms be compared but also individual organs.

The evolution of the eye can be seen by comparing DNA across many organisms. Devotees of the idea of intelligent design, i.e, the god did it crowd, have suggested that an organ as complex as an eye cannot have arisen by evolution. They proffer the idea of irreducible complexity. It’s the old “what good is half an eye” argument. Mammalian eyes, just as one example, have several parts including a retina, an iris, a lens, a pupil, etc. Arthropods have compound eyes with multiple lenses and retinas.

There is a range of types of eyes that serve different functions and therefore have different levels of complexity, but in the last analysis they all share one common feature and that is the detection of light. The basic requirement for light detection, shared across all life, is a group of closely related molecules called rhodopsins. If light shines on this molecule, it changes shape and that triggers a signal to the brain that says light! Multiple copies of the molecule allow greater sensitivity and features such as a lens add acuity to the detection. Slight variations in the structure of the rhodopsin allows for detection of different wavelengths (colors). That the rhodopsin occurs across all kinds of life is seen in the gene which codes for the production of the molecule.

Here is the really interesting part. The gene for rhodopsin synthesis occurs in forms of life that have no eyes, such as a primitive organism know as cyanobacteria. These ancient bacteria have been around for billions of years. Why would a bacteria that couldn’t care less about detecting light have rhodopsin? It turns out the bacteria use this molecule for an entirely different reason.

Minor mutations in the rhodopsin gene allowed for the “repurposing” of the molecule to serve as a light gathering structure, rather than the function it serves in bacteria. This repurposing of structures is not an uncommon feature in evolution and allows for small changes to make big differences. Life is not irreducibly complex.

Thoughts on Oxygen – Part 2

Based on genetic evidence across all life it appears that the earliest organism called LUCA, short for Last Universal Common Ancestor, contained a wealth of cellular components that handled molecular Oxygen otherwise known as O2. This in light of the fact that there was scant Oxygen present in the atmosphere, a fraction of a percent compared to the current concentration of 21 percent. Why?

Most likely is the fact that Oxygen is a very reactive gas, and it reacts by snatching electrons away from other molecules. This creates two other kinds of chemical compounds, free radicals which are electrically neutral but very reactive, and cations which are positively charged ions which also are reactive. When Oxygen or a few derivative molecules react with other components of cells or tissues they cause damage which can lead to cell death and even death of the whole organism.

One description of growing old is little more than the accumulation of cellular damage due to exposure to Oxygen. Just one example is that Oxygen reacts with a component of our skin called collagen. Over time the damage leads to reduced elasticity. This results in “brittle” skin which is more easily damaged by physical abuse. The skin also loses its tone and becomes saggy. These are oxidation reactions just like the rusting of iron and cooking oil becoming rancid. When you burn something you are oxidizing it, hence growing old is slowly burning up.

The earliest anaerobic single celled organisms had a myriad of cell components to protect themselves from oxidative damage even in an atmosphere which contained little oxygen. Today most of what we recognize as living things such as plants and animals, are aerobes. We require Oxygen to drive the processes by which we generate energy. We need the energy to do all the work of our bodies. To detoxify poisons in our liver. To move us from couch to dinner table and back. To fuel the nerve impulses to our brain that allow us to read newspaper columns.

Interestingly, our brains consume close to 25 % of all the Oxygen we use. Compare that to the heart muscle which only uses 12 % or the kidneys which need only 7 % of our Oxygen. The question now is how did we go from Oxygen being a deadly poison when life operated anaerobically (without oxygen) to our current state where it is demanded? The answer lies in a number of evolutionary advances. Those cell components that were used to protect anaerobic organisms were shifted in function by random mutations to do the job of aerobic metabolism. The advantage is that if you can control the reactivity of Oxygen, you can put it to good use to do the work of the body, but only if you control it.

Evolution does not require new constructions from whole cloth. Slight changes in a macromolecule allow it to be repurposed. Life is complex, but not so complex it requires a designer. Evolution only requires random mutations and a long time scale.

A Few Thoughts on Oxygen – Part 1

Until late in the 20th century scientists hypothesized that the earth’s early atmosphere was highly reduced, in a chemical sense. What atmospheric elements were present were bonded to hydrogen. This followed from the well-known fact that hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe . Hence, other elements were more likely to be chemically attached to Hydrogen than anything else. Any carbon would be present as methane CH4, nitrogen would be present as ammonia NH3 and oxygen in the form of water OH2.

Scientists in the early 1950s (Stanley Miller-Urey) used this assumption in experiments looking for mechanisms for the beginning of life. They created an atmosphere composed of these reduced gasses and then induced chemical reactions among them using UV light (which would have been abundant ) and/ or Electric arc (simulating lightning.) They found that the could produce several “life precursor” molecules such as amino acids (to form protein), purine and pyrimidines (to form nucleic acids), and simple sugars (to form carbohydrates.)

I gave many a lecture discussing the Miller-Urey experiments, which with current understanding of what the early atmosphere was like, were wrong. Evolution of life most likely required the same simple precursors to be present but they must have come about by other mechanisms. The current wisdom as to the composition of the early atmosphere suggests in was more in line with the composition of volcanic gasses. This is based on more recent geochemical studies. Carbon would have been present in its oxidized form, CO2. Nitrogen would have been present as the diatomic gas N2, sulfur as SO3.

The only feature of the previously assumed early atmosphere and the current hypothesis is that the presence of any free oxygen (O2) was very limited, maybe a fraction of one percent of the total atmosphere. Currently it is about 21 percent.

Regardless of the competing hypotheses about the composition of the atmosphere life most likely began and then evolved in the absence of any significant amount of Oxygen for a couple of billion years. Because of the specificity of the genetic code it has always been assumed that all life is related and the earliest ancestor of all life is called LUCA – the Last Universal Common Ancestor.

What did LUCA look like? How did she make a living? Surely she was a single celled organism replicating by cell fission. Information from mother to daughter cell was transmitted by DNA replication, so the enzymes attendant to this task are shared by all her descendants. She had to have been an anaerobe as there was scant oxygen in the atmosphere at the time. What about the other cell machinery?

When certain components of cellular machinery are found across all life, it must be that LUCA had these components. Oddly, for an anaerobe, LUCA appears to have had a broad range of macromolecular structures which are for handling oxygen. What is that all about?