Evolution

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have determined the three-dimensional structure of an RNA enzyme, or "ribozyme," that carries out a fundamental reaction required to make new RNA molecules. Their results provide insight into what may have been the first self-replicating molecule to arise billions of years ago on the evolutionary path toward the emergence of life.

In all forms of life known today, the synthesis of DNA and RNA molecules is carried out by enzymes made of proteins. The instructions for making those proteins are contained in genes made of DNA or RNA (nucleic acids). The circularity of this process poses a challenge for theories about the origins of life.

"Which came first, nucleic acids or proteins?

Your football coach always told you that the low man wins. Seems that ape-like ancestors may have evolved that way for the same reason.

Australopiths maintained short legs for 2 million years because a squat physique and stance helped the males fight over access to females, a University of Utah study concludes.

"The old argument was that they retained short legs to help them climb trees that still were an important part of their habitat," says David Carrier, a professor of biology. "My argument is that they retained short legs because short legs helped them fight."


This drawing of a male gorilla skeleton illustrates their very short legs.

Humans acquired pubic lice from gorillas several million years ago, but this seemingly seedy connection does not mean that monkey business went on with the great apes, a new University of Florida study finds.

Rather than close encounters of the intimate kind, humans most likely got the gorilla's lice from sleeping in their nests or eating the giant apes, said David Reed, assistant curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, one of the study's authors. The research is published in the current edition of the BMC Biology journal.

"It certainly wouldn't have to be what many people are going to immediately assume it might have been, and that is sexual intercourse occurring between humans and gorillas," he said.

Scientists at the University of Illinois have conducted a genetic analysis of vespid wasps that revises the vespid family tree and challenges long-held views about how the wasps’ social behaviors evolved.

In the study, published in the Feb. 21 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found genetic evidence that eusociality (the reproductive specialization seen in some insects and other animals) evolved independently in two groups of vespid wasps.

These findings contradict an earlier model of vespid wasp evolution, which placed the groups together in a single lineage with a common ancestor.

Eusocial behavior is quite rare, and generally involves the breeding of different reproductive classes within a colony.

In a thought-provoking paper from the March issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology , Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin) clearly discusses the problems with two standard criticisms of intelligent design: that it is unfalsifiable and that the many imperfect adaptations found in nature refute the hypothesis of intelligent design.

Biologists from Charles Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould have advanced this second type of argument. Stephen Jay Gould's well-known example of a trait of this type is the panda's thumb. If a truly intelligent designer were responsible for the panda, Gould argues, it would have provided a more useful tool than the stubby proto-thumb that pandas use to laboriously strip bamboo in order to eat it.

ID proponents have a ready reply to this objection.

“Regressive evolution,” or the reduction of traits over time, is the result of either natural selection or genetic drift, according to a study on cavefish by researchers at New York University’s Department of Biology, the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, and the Harvard Medical School. Previously, scientists could not determine which forces contributed to regressive evolution in cave-adapted species, and many doubt the role of natural selection in this process.

When man made his way out of Africa some 60,000 years ago to populate the world, he was not alone: He was accompanied by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which causes gastritis in many people today. Together, man and the bacterium spread throughout the entire world. This is the conclusion reached by an international team of scientists led by Mark Achtman from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany. The researchers also discovered that differences developed in the genetic makeup of the bacteria populations, just as it did in that of the various peoples of the world.

Some breaking news, just in time for Valentine's Day: Researchers have identified something called "sperm competition" that they think has evolved to ensure a genetic future. In sexual reproduction, natural selection is generally thought of as something that happens prior to – and in fact leads to -- the Big Event. This thinking holds, for example, that we are drawn to physical features that tell us our partner is healthy and will give us a fighting chance to carry on our genetic lineage.

A Michigan scientist who was put on academic trial for teaching evolution at Calvin College in the 1980s is emerging as a national figure in the cultural war over faith and science.

On Wednesday, Dr. Howard Van Till was one of four scholars from across the country who debated faith and evolution at a conference at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school near Pittsburgh.

And Sunday, he will lecture at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Hills.

"This is such an important issue for Americans," said John Cook, a lawyer from West Bloomfield who plans to attend Van Till's talk.