Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

More speech gives fewer malignant breast tumours!

October 25, 2014

Who would have thought the ability to develop speech may be linked to the malignancy of breast cancer cells.

A new paper in Cell Stem Cell apparently shows that “silencing the Speech Gene FOXP2 Causes Breast Cancer Cells to Metastasize”Forkhead box protein P2 (FOXP2) is a protein that in humans is encoded by the FOXP2 gene and which is thought to enable speech and language development in the brain. It is also known to affect tissue development. While Neanderthals had the physical capability for speech it is not known if they had the FOXP2 gene. The new paper reports that suppressing the FOXP2 gene leads to more breast cancer cells turning malignant.

Perhaps the ability to talk is a survival factor for women?

The number of genes may be finite and limited but they are expert not only at multi-tasking but also in working in very many different “teams” with other genes.

Beth Israel Press Release:

It is an intricate network of activity that enables breast cancer cells to move from the primary breast tumor and set up new growths in other parts of the body, a process known as metastasis.

Now a research team led by investigators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) has identified an unexpected link between a transcription factor known to regulate speech and language development and metastatic colonization of breast cancer.

Currently described online in Cell Stem Cell, the new findings demonstrate that, when silenced, the FOXP2 transcription factor, otherwise known as the speech gene, endows breast cancer cells with a number of malignant traits and properties that enable them to survive – and thrive. …

…….. FOXP2 has primarily been implicated in regulating speech and language development and several reports have described functions for this protein in developmental neurogenesis. Additional reports have also linked FOXP2 to tissue development, such as the lung.

“We were curious and wanted to find out the business of FOXP2 in breast cancer,” he adds. “Surprisingly, we found that its suppression in the tumor cells was sufficient to expand cancer stem cell traits and caused the cancer cells to metastasize much more vigorously.”

These findings agreed with similar results in which the authors determined that miR-199a upregulation and FOXP2 repression are prominent features of aggressive clinical breast cancers and represent independent prognostic parameters for overall patient survival.

“We are one step closer to understanding how cells in the tumor microenvironment, such as MSCs, promote the malignancy of neighboring cancer cells,” says Karnoub. “We’re now more closely investigating FOXP2’s potential role as a metastasis suppressor that needs to be downregulated for metastasis to take place.”


“Animal conservation” in zoos is anti-evolutionary and probably immoral

February 27, 2014

The case of Marius the giraffe murdered recently at Copenhagen Zoo has led to more attention to the function of zoos, their supposed “conservation” efforts and their breed-and-cull policies. There is an aura of “goodness” around “animal conservation” which is quite unjustified. As practised today, animal conservation in zoos is anti-evolutionary and borders on the immoral.

I enjoy visiting some zoos (though there are many which are merely collections of psychotic animals) and I enjoyed taking my children to some zoos. It was primarily for entertainment and – as with all entertainment – offered some opportunities for learning. But I cannot subscribe to the politically correct notion that zoos are places where some animal species are being “saved” from extinction. At best they are places where some species, which are on the verge of extinction because they have failed to adapt or evolve to cope with their environments, are frozen into an artificial existence in quite unsuitable habitats for the purpose of entertaining visitors. Such species are not helped to change – genetically or otherwise – to be able to survive by themselves in a changing world. Conservation is taken be a “good thing” but consists only of preserving the animals and their current genes. If left to themselves they would still fail to survive. The animals are bred and over-bred such that healthy specimens must then be culled. That is stagnation not evolution. Zoos are just places for human entertainment and very little else – and there is nothing wrong with that. But they do not deserve any halo of “goodness” for their “conservation”.

To truly help a species to survive requires helping them to breed and evolve such that their survival characteristics are improved. But “conservation” today consists of creating living fossils which are incapable of surviving without human intervention. It is taking a frozen snap-shot of the species and its genes. That is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. I have written on this theme before (Genetic adaptation not stagnating conservation is the way to help threatened species),

Conservation – as stagnation – is not sustainable.  Trying to prevent change is a futile exercise. It is change which is the fundamental characteristic of life. It is managing change and even designing change which is a particular strength of the human species. It is human ingenuity at work. It is time to give thought to how we can help the species around us evolve into the neo-species which can cope with the changes which are inevitable.

This BBC article today only reinforces my view that so-called “animal conservation” in zoos is just show business and has nothing whatever to do with helping endangered species to survive.

How many healthy animals do zoos put down?

When Copenhagen Zoo put down a healthy male giraffe earlier this month, much of the world was horrified. But those in the know say it’s quite normal – a fate that befalls thousands of zoo animals across Europe every year. ….. 

It’s often hard to get any information, but the 340 zoos that belong to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) must sign up to the organisation’s various breeding programmes, and for each species in the programme there is a studbook – a kind of inventory which records every animal’s birth, genetic make-up, and death.

EAZA does not publish these records or advertise the number of healthy animals that have been culled, but executive director Dr Leslie Dickie estimates that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are “management-euthanised” in European zoos in any given year. …… 

…….. Four German zookeepers were also prosecuted in 2010 for culling three tiger cubs at Magdeburg Zoo “without reasonable cause” (though the EAZA judged the step “entirely reasonable and scientifically valid“). ….

… The EAZA Yearbook 2007/2008 (the latest publicly available edition) states clearly that a “breed and cull” policy should be followed for some animals, like the pygmy hippopotamus.

Surpluses are a problem with a number of species, including monkeys and baboons, it notes. ….


Evolution is not – and never has been – the “survival of the fittest”

February 15, 2014

I was listening to a Professor expounding on evolution on the radio and found his glib assertions about the “survival of the fittest” both irritating and lightweight. (A person who talks down to his audience or who is incapable of explaining his theses to a lay audience should never – I think – be allowed to become a “Professor”).

Evolution does not lead to the excellence of survival traits.

While the individuals of any species best fitted to survival will likely survive, they are not the only individuals to survive. All those not weak enough to perish will also survive. And if these individuals – who only just clear the survival stakes – are adept (or lucky) in the reproduction competition then it is their genes which are carried forward. And the resultant genes carried forward we call “evolution”.

Evolution is only the result of survival x reproduction. As the environment around the individual changes (climate, competition…), the traits that will permit survival will also change. If a species has a wide variety of traits available among its individuals then it is more likely that some individuals will survive in the changing conditions. If this variability of the available traits is insufficient to cope with the magnitude of the change that species will become extinct as all its individuals perish.

Those individuals who succeed best in the “fitness for survival” stakes are not necessarily those who reproduce most. And in the reproduction stakes it is the number of offspring that counts. As genetic studies are now showing the leading lion in a pride is not always the sole male producing offspring. Sneaky young lions from outside the pride and some of the lionesses who have roving eyes often succeed in cuckolding the dominant male. Even birds who were presumed to mate for life apparently have little flings on the side from time to time. Birds of Paradise who have the showiest and most colourful displays are not necessarily the strongest or the fastest but they are the most expert at getting their way with their ladies. The traits needed for individual survival are not necessarily those most suited to successful reproduction (number of offspring).

Survival is not of the “fittest” but of all those not weak enough to perish.

Evolution is thus controlled first by individuals who are just good enough to survive but –  more importantly – who excel at reproduction. 

Human society now sees to it – or tries to – that a lack of “fitness” of any kind is not a bar to either survival or reproduction. In consequence the evolution of humans will then be controlled by individuals in stories like these who – by any stretch of the imagination – are far from being the “fittest”:

  1. Father of 22 children by 11 women …
  2. Man who fathered THIRTY kids ….
  3.  ….. fathered up to 600 children through sperm bank ….. 

Neanderthal genes are everywhere

January 30, 2014

Neanderthal genes are everywhere

We seek them here, we seek them there,

We met them often – but when? And where?

They are in our skins and in our hair,

Neanderthal genes are everywhere

From, Sriram Sankararaman et al, The genomic landscape of Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humansNature, 2014; DOI:10.1038/nature12961

Harvard Press ReleaseRemnants of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans are associated with genes affecting type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, biliary cirrhosis and smoking behavior. They also concentrate in genes that influence skin and hair characteristics. At the same time, Neanderthal DNA is conspicuously low in regions of the X chromosome and testes-specific genes.

Dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunter gatherer

January 27, 2014

Light skin genes in Europe less than 7,000 years old

Genetic analysis of ancient skeletons is bringing pictures of our ancestors to light in vivid colours. What is particularly astounding to me is the mobility of our ancestors – and their genes – already in the pleistocene.

Less than 350 generations for the light skin gene to have spread all over Europe seems to be a very short time. But that is what is concluded from the genetic analysis of two hunter-gatherer skeletons discovered in a cave in the mountains of north-west Spain in 2006.

hunter gatherer from brana


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Genetic adaptation – not stagnating conservation – is the way to help threatened species

October 26, 2013

If the big cats, or elephants or giraffes or pandas want to survive into the distant future they need to evolve. The changes taking place in their environment and in their loss of habitat are happening too fast for natural selection to throw up the genetic changes needed for long term survival. As long as humans remain the dominant species in their environment they will need to come to terms with that – genetically. Conventional conservation efforts are fundamentally flawed. They are backwards looking. They try to preserve these species – as they are – in artificially protected habitats which are frozen in time, which remain unchanged while the world around them changes. Conservation attempts to freeze these species and thereby lock them into the non-viable position they have found themselves in. This is not going to help them to continue into the future, except as an unsuccessful species. It is paradoxical that unsuccessful species are subject to conservation efforts and successful species get labelled as pests.

Much of the rapid change to the environments for these species is a consequence of the success of humanity as a species. Trying to keep a species unchanged and stagnating in a changing world seems to me to be irresponsible. And creating  little protected bubbles of habitat – whether in a reserve or a zoo can only be a short term measure. Domesticated animals are at little risk of extinction as long as humans thrive. Their success is inextricably linked with the human species and they have been adapted genetically to be what they are today. They are not allowed to breed freely or indiscriminately and that is the genetic price they pay. But their survival is assured – at least as long as humans thrive and maybe even beyond.

‘There are many more “urbanised” species which have through a natural – but environmentally coerced or forced – selection adapted genetically to have the traits which allow them to be successful in  the human-dominated environments they find themselves in. Foxes, bears, wolves, badgers and even the polar bears of Churchill have evolved and adapted to survive in human dominated environments. But they generally live surreptitious lives in the shadow of man. They have not found a sustainable position  as yet. An increasing number of birds have adapted their behaviour (presumably also by genetic changes) to take advantage of human behaviour. They have learned to live in and around our cities, to take advantage of our agricultural and harvesting habits and to use our waste streams as their food source. Even in the water, there are fish species which succeed because of the changes brought about by man. Many insects – be they cockroaches or spiders or mosquitoes, or termites – now know how to take advantage of man-made environments. At the microbial or viral level, species are not much concerned by the changes wrought by humans and continue their merry way.

Now in this new age of DNA analysis and intentional selection of genes I think it is time for Conservation to move away from merely trying to “freeze” species in an artificially protected environment and to move into a pro-active phase where humans actually help threatened species to continue into the future. This does not mean that the neo-species that appear must necessarily be domesticated or in the service of humans but it does mean that they must share the same habitat and be able to co-exist. If they require a specialised habitat which is likely to disappear or change due to man or for any other reason, they are destined to eventually go extinct. Putting such species into zoos or other artificially maintained or otherwise protected habitats only preserves an obsolete species in a temporary environment. Conventional conservation as it is practiced today goes down that route. And while it may provide a short term method for preserving the genes of such species, it is in an unsustainable form. It is a method which does no real service to such species.

Instead of trying to recreate the woolly mammoth for an environment which is totally unsuitable or of making futile attempts to preserve habitats for elephants so that they continue “unchanged”, it would be better if we considered how elephants – or the big cats – could be assisted along the evolutionary path such that they could find a natural and sustainable place in the brave new world that they now inhabit. For example, if neo-elephants were helped to evolve genetically such that their propensity to wander over very large areas reduced, or if they preferred certain kinds of trees and bushes and left others alone, or where their wanderings were more discerning and not as damaging to human crops, then herds of neo-elephants could find a sustainable place by the side of humanity.

Perhaps Siberian neo-tigers could be evolved genetically to help herd reindeer and develop a mutually beneficial partnership with man. An occasional reindeer kill would then be quite acceptable. It would be so much more contructive if neo-wolves were helped not to stagnate genetically, but instead to evolve the behavioural characteristics that allowed them to find a way of co-existing with humans and human flocks of sheep. The idea of neo-dolphins who communicate with man and have a herding behaviour in the oceans which benefit both humans and themselves has long been a subject of science fiction. Our nearest primate cousins have to be helped to move on and not to stagnate into extinction. The pace of environmental change is much too fast for natural selection to throw up the individuals capable of survival. Instead a natural deselection of individuals incapable of surviving is taking place. Neo-gorillas and neo-chimpanzees will not appear without human intervention.

Conservation – as stagnation – is not sustainable.  Trying to prevent change is a futile exercise. It is change which is the fundamental characteristic of life. It is managing change and even designing change which is a particular strength of the human species. It is human ingenuity at work. It is time to give thought to how we can help the species around us evolve into the neo-species which can cope with the changes which are inevitable.

Humans are enabling some animals to evolve larger brains

August 23, 2013

As humans implement artificial selection on themselves – a process and a force for evolution operating much faster than natural selection could  – they are also changing the environment for evolutionary selection in which many animals live. Some of these species are enormously successful in adapting to their new environments while others cannot cope with the change. The changes are so profound that the evolutionary trajectories of these species are changing. It could be that the “urbansisation” of these species has led some species to follow an evolutionary path which includes increasing brain size in their new, man-made surroundings. Carl Zimmer writes in the New York Times:

Are We Making Animal Brains Bigger? 

Evolutionary biologists have come to recognize humans as a tremendous evolutionary force. In hospitals, we drive the evolution of resistant bacteria by giving patients antibiotics. In the oceans, we drive the evolution of small-bodied fish by catching the big ones.

In a new study, a University of Minnesota biologist, Emilie C. Snell-Rood, offers evidence suggesting we may be driving evolution in a more surprising way. As we alter the places where animals live, we may be fueling the evolution of bigger brains.

Dr. Snell-Rood bases her conclusion on a collection of mammal skulls kept at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Snell-Rood picked out 10 species to study, including mice, shrews, bats and gophers. She selected dozens of individual skulls that were collected as far back as a century ago. An undergraduate student named Naomi Wick measured the dimensions of the skulls, making it possible to estimate the size of their brains.

Two important results emerged from their research. In two species — the white-footed mouse and the meadow vole — the brains of animals from cities or suburbs were about 6 percent bigger than the brains of animals collected from farms or other rural areas. Dr. Snell-Rood concludes that when these species moved to cities and towns, their brains became significantly bigger.

…..  Studies by other scientists have linked better learning in animals with bigger brains. In January, for example, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden described an experiment in which they bred guppies for larger brain sizes. The big-brained fish scored better on learning tests than their small-brained cousins.

Animals colonizing cities and towns have to learn how to find food in buildings and other places their ancestors hadn’t encountered. ..

Ants which adapt to human behaviour are considered a threat

August 14, 2013

Why do we penalise successful species and protect the failures? Almost as if we we wish to deny evolution by ensuring the survival of those which don’t deserve to survive.

If Giant Pandas were not as disinterested as they seem to be in reproducing themselves and as specialised in eating only a few species of bamboo, but instead were immensely successful in increasing their own numbers, then we would no doubt be organising Panda culls. But since they are an almost perfect example of a species bent on its own extinction we go to all possible lengths to keep them going!

Yet another story where a successful species which adapts to and make use of humans and human behaviour is then considered a “threat”. Unsuccessful species of course would become “endangered” and would then be protected!

BBCThe problem of invasive ants may be far worse than previously thought. 

A Spanish team of scientists has found that larger than expected numbers of the insects are being unwittingly shipped around the world. The researchers warn that many of these species are establishing colonies in their new habitats that could pose a threat to the environment, infrastructure and human health. The research is published in the journal Royal Society Biology Letters.

Lead author Veronica Miravete, from the University of Gerona in Spain, said: “Due to their small size, most ants are transported involuntarily in containers and other boxes, together with soil, wood, ornamental plants and fruits etc, on ships or airplanes.”

The research team looked at the numbers of exotic ants in the Netherlands, the United States and New Zealand.

Fire ant

They found far more of these accidental stowaways than had previously been reported.

Extrapolating from this data, they estimate that 768 exotic ant species could have been introduced around the world through trade routes.

Of these, they believe that more than 600 species could have established new colonies.

Dr Miravete said: “The number of ants arriving is very large and 85% of the introduced species are able to establish successfully. This indicates that there are many introduced species that are living around us as of yet undetected.”

While not all animals that move to a new region pose a threat, some can wreak havoc – and invasive ants are some of the worst alien offenders.

Silly science? Evolution does not favour the selfish

August 1, 2013

Silly season is upon us.

Two Michigan University researchers claim that evolution will not sustain a “selfish gene” but will eventually select for cooperation.

Why am I not in the least bit convinced?

If either selfishness or cooperation was genetically determined, and if survival was dependent upon such a choice, then one or the other should have become extinct a long time ago.  The silliness of this work lies first in the assumption that a behavioural characteristic – even if crucial for survival – is merely determined by genetics.  Second, evolution never selects for excellence – whether in superlative selfishness or for unstinting cooperation. It represents the minimum of behavioural traits needed to survive till reproduction.

Evolution couldn’t care less if individuals are selfish or cooperative. It only results from those individuals sufficiently selfish or sufficiently cooperative for survival until reproduction. 

Of course the Daily Mail manages to put it in a remarkably silly headline:

Selfish people ‘will eventually die out’ because evolution favours cooperation

The paper is published in Nature Communications.

Christoph Adami, Arend Hintze. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everythingNature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI:10.1038/ncomms3193

The accompanying press release trumpets

Evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean 

Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn’t favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy – called zero-determinant – that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

“The paper caused quite a stir,” said Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area.”

Adami and Hintze had their doubts about whether following a zero determinant strategy (ZD) would essentially eliminate cooperation and create a world full of selfish beings. So they used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands of games and found ZD strategies can never be the product of evolution. While ZD strategies offer advantages when they’re used against non-ZD opponents, they don’t work well against other ZD opponents.

“In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other,” Adami said.

So ZD strategies only worked if players knew who their opponents were and adapted their strategies accordingly. A ZD player would play one way against another ZD player and a different way against a cooperative player.

“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” Hintze said. “And even if ZD strategists kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So they wouldn’t be ZD strategists anymore.” 

Game theory for an individual game or even for a succession of games is one thing but evolution does not care how selfish or how cooperative an individual is.

Successful owl species to be killed off to assist an unsuccessful owl species!

July 24, 2013

“Conservation” is fundamentally anti-evolution if human intervention is to protect unviable species while killing off the successful ones. And here it would seem that the intervention by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is more to atone for their past sins than for any sound principles. All in the name of “Conservation”.

Barred owl

A barred owl is seen near Index, Wash. The federal government is considering killing some of the owls in the Pacific Northwest to aid the smaller northern spotted owl in the area. (Barton Glasser / Associated Press)LATimes: 

LA Times: Federal wildlife officials have moved one step closer to their plan to play referee in a habitat supremacy contest that has pitted two species of owl against one another in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a final environmental review of an experiment planned in three states to see if killing barred owls will assist the northern spotted owls, which are threatened with extinction after a major loss of territory since the 1970s.

The agency’s preferred course of action calls for killing 3,603 barred owls in four study areas in Oregon, Washington and Northern California over the next four years. At a cost of $3 million, the plan requires a special permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits killing non-game birds.

“It’s a fair assessment to say that going after the barred owls is the plan we’d prefer to pursue,” Robin Bown, a federal wildlife biologist, told the Los Angeles Times.

The agency began evaluating alternatives in 2009, gathering public comment and consulting ethicists, focus groups and conduction scientific studies.

It will issue a final decision on the plan in 30 days.


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