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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 17:24 EDT

Beyond Darwin: Evolving New Functions

June 29, 2011

A recent Kavli Futures Symposium focused on the progress, and promise, of evolving biological functions in the lab. Now, 3 Symposium participants discuss this remarkable research, and how it’s drawing together diverse scientific fields.

At a recent Kavli Futures Symposium, 19 experts from a diverse range of fields discussed the promise of using the lab to understand and exploit the evolution of organisms — progress that may one day lead to new vaccines or other biotechnology products.

Now, three of the participants have joined in a discussion of the issues and topics raised during the meeting: Michael Brenner, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and member of the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology, Harvard University; Stephen Quake, Professor of Applied Physics and Bioengineering at Stanford University and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Mark Martindale, Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii.

In the dialogue, the researchers discuss how investigators in several different scientific fields are now exploring how organisms evolve new functions in a much more detailed way. They also discuss how new experimental methods and tools are expected to greatly aid those explorations by enabling the quick, inexpensive and complex analyses that are needed for laboratory investigations of evolution.

The hope is that the synergy of all these fields can one day lead to a better understanding of how complex new structures, such as the eye or even the entire nervous system, evolved and enabled new functions. These findings are likely to further advances in directed evolution, with such practical applications as improved vaccines or bacteria engineered to produce oil from sugar, or to carry out other useful new functions. “All of the same principles and concepts that apply to studying evolution over the hundred-million-year time scale should also describe what goes on in your immune system over the course of much briefer periods — years, months, weeks,” said Quake. “I’m very excited about trying to take general concepts and apply them to areas that haven’t previously been explored as evolutionary models.”

Brenner concurred on this point. “Every method people have for thinking about how to combat disease or anything else is developed under an intellectual paradigm. If one could invent new concepts for how evolutionary change occurs, then they could really change the way you think about those problems.”

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