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Is Evolution Predictable? 298

Posted by Zonk
from the no-one-predicted-the-tour-de-france dept.
An anonymous reader writes "C|Net is carrying a story about some research out of Rice University. They are exploring the possibility that we can predict the evolution of a species, given environmental factors." From the article: "Typically, the bacteria can continue to thrive when the temperature hits 73 degrees Celsius (163 degrees Fahrenheit). The experimental strain of bacteria contained a mutated version of a gene that, in the naturally occurring strain of the microbe, produces a protein that made existence possible. They then put these mutant strains in environments where the temperature rose slowly but steadily, and studied how different generations coped with the changing temperature. In the breeding that followed, millions of new mutations of the gene in question were produced, but only about 700 of those variants replicated some of the functionality of the naturally occurring gene."
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Is Evolution Predictable?

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  • Kidding, right? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Aladrin (926209)
    You have got to be kidding. To even have a BASIC understanding of evolution you have to know that it means species evolve to fit new environments. This, at its very basic, means that if the climate is hotter, the species adapts to the extra heat. DUH. When a new predator comes along, the prey ... adapts to defend/hide from that predator. DUH.

    They didn't need to perform their silly experiments to come up with this hypothesis. It's built in to the basic nature of the idea.

    Now, as for the article... The
    • To even have a BASIC understanding of evolution you have to know that it means species evolve to fit new environments. This, at its very basic, means that if the climate is hotter, the species adapts to the extra heat. DUH. When a new predator comes along, the prey ... adapts to defend/hide from that predator. DUH.

      Not really. It's more like this...

      Random mutations occur all the time and whilst most of them result in serious deformation or death, some can offer advantages. In some cases these advantages are
      • That's the mechanism. I'm talking about the result.
      • Organisms that are poorly suited to their environment do not survive to pass on their genes.

        Sure they do. For example, humans are poorly suited for sitting down all day typing, using a mouse and staring at a hundred-watt light bulb some people call display, as this simultanously ruins their back, eyes and cardiovascular system and runs a risk of severe social disorders. Nor are we really suited for controlling tons of metal going at 80 km/h, as numerous accidents each year prove. Despite all this we see

    • by vertinox (846076) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @09:13AM (#15371788)
      You have got to be kidding. To even have a BASIC understanding of evolution you have to know that it means species evolve to fit new environments.

      Actually it isn't just that... (Well if you include evolving because other species are eating you, but that could be lumped into 'environment')

      It is that mutations are random and often times ill suited for their environment, but it is only a matter of chance that something survives to pass on its genes. Whether it is not being eaten into extinction by another species, not over populating until you destroy existing resources and then you go extinct, not dying because of an ice age, or not being wiped out by a meteor.

      One can say... Well that was the environment that killed off those species... Well it isn't because that the species evolved to adapt to the environment, but only those whose random mutations made them more suited for the environment survived.

      As in... If you put a million grizzly bear in the polar region none of them are going to spontaneously evolve his fur white more like a polar bear because that was the best choice.

      However, if any of those bears happened to spontaneously mutate into where their hair turned white making them better hunters so that the seals couldn't see them. Then those species may actually do better than there brown counterparts and may survive in times of hardship where as the browns die out.

      What I am trying to say is that any mutation that doesn't kill off the species will continue in the species, but it is more probable that mutations that allow a species to survive will get passed on.

      Take our appendix for example... What the hell does that do?

      It may or may not have had some purpose in the past, but we simply don't evolve it away because it doesn't kill us so we pass it on to the next generation.

      Basically, evolution isn't about mutating into the best possible creature for the environment, but rather we mutate constantly and the mutations that kill us don't get passed on.

      Now that leads to the question "What really causes DNA mutations?"

      Chances are it could be do to higher radiation events during magnetic pole reversals or gamma ray bursts where the radiation is so high that many species die of cancer and health problems, but those who do survive have random mutations. After that... Any mutation that doesn't kill the species off due to environmental factors passes those genes on.
      • by plunge (27239) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @10:11AM (#15371963)
        One theory on the appendix has been that the smaller the appendix comes, the MORE likely it is to get infected and kill. So once evolved, and once run out of a useful purpose, it has become very hard to get rid of, because many of the avenues are blocked.

        Likewise, it's worth noting that very often disparate elements are linked. The appendix itself might not be a good thing, but it's developmentally linked to or even just very close to something on the genome that is hard or dangerous to tinker with. And thus, it has been left alone since tinkering with that area of the genome breaks something else important.
      • Now that leads to the question "What really causes DNA mutations?"

        Chances are it could be do to higher radiation events during magnetic pole reversals or gamma ray bursts where the radiation is so high that many species die of cancer and health problems, but those who do survive have random mutations. After that... Any mutation that doesn't kill the species off due to environmental factors passes those genes on.


        Not bad up until this point.

        For one thing, most evolution has less to do with mutations, and more to do with subtle variations between members of a species. So with the case of fur color in mammals, you have multiple genes that contribute to the quantity of melanin in hair. Individuals with combinations ideally suited to the environment are more successful than others.

        Secondly, we know many of the actions for how mutations happen at the biochemical level. Most mutations occur because of errors in DNA replication and repair. Another class of mutations occurs because DNA can fold back on its self under certain conditions, or become attached to other strands. These mutations occur all the time and with a frequency stable enough that we can use them as timers to estimate the geologic time that has elapsed since Kodiak bears and Polar bears shared a common ancestor.
      • The appendix is part of the immune system... it has a similar function to Tonsils, Meyers Patches, etc. contains Lymphoid tissue and contributes to the lymphatic system. You can remove it without major immune system degradation because it's functionality is duplicated in multiple parts of the body, even near it's own location... so it may be an original organ from a time when we needed additional immune response, especially in our large intestine (it's a pouch of tissue adjacent to large intestine).... pos
    • Re:Kidding, right? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by m0nstr42 (914269)
      I'm afraid you're another victim of popular media reporting on real science. From TFA, "Conceivably, if scientists can predict how the microbes will adapt to changes in their environment, they can develop antibiotics that won't be rapidly rendered ineffective by stronger, successive generations." This is undoubtedly the real motivation, not to test Darwin's celebrated theories.

      Anyways, Darwin's theory doesn't really make any quantitative predictions. These guys are doing the basic science experiments
      • It didn't appear twice. "700 of those variants replicated some of the functionality of the naturally occurring gene." Some of the functionality of the naturally occuring gene is not the same thing as the exact same gene reappearing over and over. Granted, the way mutation works is a lot more complicated than purely random changes able to happen anywhere, and exact same mutations cropping up is part of how mutation can work. But in this case, we aren't actually talking about that.

        This experiment is just
      • You have to look at the whole experiment in regards to the hypothesis. They are stating that given those bacteria and those conditions, the same 6 major populations will evolve from the experiment.

        They only did that twice.

        If the question was 'Will they evolve?' then yes, it was done many, many times.
    • I don't think you can conclude that evolution can be predicted from that kind of experiments. Just that evolution can be observed. Evolution just happens. But the fact that we can observe it doesn't mean we can understand and predict it.

      Even if in some cases the expected outcome is deterministic, we don't know how really works, see folding@home, that stuff is really computationally expensive. We would need to know the folding behavior of all possible protein and then a fast, effective way to model the inter
      • I have to disagree about the sun.

        Pretending I know NOTHING about spheres rotating, revolving, etc, and nothing about circles travelling across the sky...

        I watch as a color-changing (red/orange/yellow/white) circle makes its way over the horizon. After ~12 hours, it gets to the other horizon and sinks the same way.

        I'm going to be pretty sure it could happen again.

        I watch it happen again the next day. I'm going to be pretty sure it happens repeatedly, but no idea how often it really happens.

        I watch it sever
  • He's from spain (Score:5, Informative)

    by Joris Van Damme (971894) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @07:57AM (#15371603)
    I had to read this several times before it started making sense... It's encrypted, really, it is.

    > The experimental strain of bacteria contained a mutated version of
    > a gene that, in the naturally occurring strain of the microbe,
    > produces a protein that made existence possible.

    That should read:

    The experimental strain of bacteria contained a mutated version of a gene that, in the naturally occurring strain of that gene, produces a protein that made existence in these temperatures possible.

    So, in short, they disabled the microbes heat resistence, and saw if the buggers could grow it back.
  • survival (Score:2, Interesting)

    by FudRucker (866063)
    since the human race is subject to the same laws of evolution i think this gene should be added to the human race so when global warming really starts to warm things up those humans that can use and evolve with this gene will survive...
  • by OpenSourced (323149) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @08:08AM (#15371626) Journal
    That environment is absolutely different to real life. Try at least to have different temperature zones with more food in the hotter ones, for example. Or repeat the experiment not two, but a thousand times, and see if the result is always the same. That will be a bit more similar to real life, and so have a bit more prediction value.

    • And if they used a more realistic environment and got results that weren't so clear, then people would argue that they should have done something simpler where they could control all the variables. The answer is to use both approaches, but not necessarily in the same study.

      There was an interesting paper on that touched on the same issues using a 'natural experiment'. They looked at a group of spiders that colonized the Hawaiian islands. Each island contains a collection of the same ecotypes of these spide

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @08:10AM (#15371630)
    Sure, you can predict evolution if you control all of the life-or-death variables that influence the viability of the bacteria species you're watching. I mean, for fun, I go to Drudge for headlines like that because, well, it's amusing to see the twisted contexts... but isn't this audience/editorial team just a skosh more thoughtful about this sort of thing? Given the traditional dialog and debate here about all thinge evolution-related, throwing that word in the headline in that way drags all of that baggage in with it. Come on, there, Zonk! How about a headline like "Unnatural Selection Works Too" or something similar.
    • While I agree with you that the title is convoluted, I disagree that we can predict evolution reliably. As you said, we need access to "life-and-death" variables, but which ones are they? Can we predict the viability of a new strain by looking at the molecular structure? Should we look at it at level of individual atoms? Tissues, organs? Even defining what is alive is near damned impossible.

      These issues are not specific only to this type of research. I am a scientist myself (actually, I am from Rice Univers

  • by creimer (824291) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @08:15AM (#15371649) Homepage
    Is that a group of graduate students have returned from E3 with an unauthorized copy of the game Spore [spore.com] instead of working on their project for the final. I predict that these lazy students will evolve into hard working game testers.
  • Maybe (Score:3, Insightful)

    by suv4x4 (956391) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @08:32AM (#15371674)
    From TFA: "Can we predict how animals and plants evolve in response to changes in the environment? Maybe, according to preliminary research from Rice University."

    Can we guess the numbers from the lottery? Maybe, says preliminar research I just did.

    Evolution works by having random variations and mutations based on what is physically possible and better adapted to the environment.

    You can never guess which mutation will be best fitting though. We can guess some mutations that might work somewhat better, but nature will surprise you with something you never thought of.

    Let's not imagine we're that smart, we still barely know the details about our own species let alone make guesses for the entire nature.

    But of course: if we put a cat and a catfish in deep water I think it's obvious which one the natural selection will prefer.
    • Can we guess the numbers from the lottery? Maybe, says preliminar research I just did.

      Evolution works by having random variations and mutations based on what is physically possible and better adapted to the environment.

      I think it's a bad analogy. Numbers from the lottery are trully random. Evolution is based on random mutations, but the one mutations that will stay can be predicted, although we are unable to do so due to our lack of informations and knowledge.

      Example. Imagine than us, the humans, more or l

      • I think it's a bad analogy. Numbers from the lottery are trully random. Evolution is based on random mutations, but the one mutations that will stay can be predicted, although we are unable to do so due to our lack of informations and knowledge.

        Guess what, mutations are also truly random. They really are. I don't deny that many organisms have "smart" adapation mechanisms that can take effect even in the same generation, but that's no mutation.

        The number of mutations possible in an organism like a cell are p
        • Guess what, mutations are also truly random.

          I know, thanks alot, but on a global scale, it's stochastic, that's the point. Alright let me clear my thought. Mutations are random, but since they happen in billions of individuals, you can theorically figure them out statistically. As for lottery numbers, they get sorted out only once (well, that's if you play only once). The reason why you can't tell which will come out is that they are all as likely to come out, and can come out only once, as opposed to havi

          • There's only one problem with that idea, how many scale-shielded human mutants have you ever seen?

            How many people have dinosaurs seen? Before creatures evolved to breath air and walk out of the water, the prehistoric fish: how many tigers have they seen?

            You have a point about very likely and probably mutations having stochastic nature (for example dolphins have evolved back to the shape of a fish but are not fish), but to think this is all is very misleading. Nature doesn't just get to pick from what's layi
        • Evolution is not the same as lottery.
          Even though mutations are random, its results are not.
          That's what the scientists in TFA are investigating.

          Let's review the experiment, I'll show you why it's not that random.

          You take a few million bacteria.
          You zap the bug's ability to withstand heat and the you heat them up.
          Evolution says they will gain the ability to withstand heat again.
          However, there are certain mechanisms that allow the critters to survive.

          Let's assume from now on that mutations give a beneficial or
  • I knew one day this question would be asked....
  • If you continue to slowly increase the temperature, at what point do the bacteria reach an evolutionary dead-end and die? There are bacteria that survive on or near geothermal vents.
  • Darwin was wrong! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Instine (963303)
    I believe Darwin's comments have often been missunderstood because of an unfortunate choice of words. Evolution doesn't rely on the survival of the fittest, but of the most sustainable. If the mutant variants can sustain themselve they will survive, and be the DeFacto higher organism. Those that can't, don't, and become history.

    Fittest suggests that you must be 'more' something. Stronger, faster, smarter, ... But this is not necessarily the case. Bacteria will almost certainly outlive humankind, for exa
    • It's worth noting that SotF isn't really even Darwin's term. It wasn't even added to Origin until the 6th edition, and then only grudingly, Darwin being unsatisfied with most such terms but giving into popular parlance.
      • Exactly. from Wikipedia:

        "Survival of the fittest is a phrase which is a shorthand for a concept relating to competition for survival or predominance. Originally applied by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Biology of 1864, Spencer drew parallels to his ideas of economics with Charles Darwin's theories of evolution by what Darwin termed natural selection.

        The phrase is a metaphor, not a scientific description; and it is not generally used by biologists, who almost exclusively prefer to use the phrase "

    • It wasn't an inappropriate term for his day.... Only modern speakers associate 'fittest" with something 'more'.... which is a direct result of our adoption of the term 'fitness' to describe health and robust physical condition.

      In strict etmylogical terms 'fittest' would be that which fits it's environment the best, ie: most sustainable, as you have described.

      A weaker/smaller variation of a species could easily be the most fit for an environment if by being so it was able to reproduce more often or more effe
  • Obviously you can't predict evolution perfectly, but it is an extremely complicated (one could say the most complicated) mechanism in existence and so with a good understanding of the dynamics, organisms, their biology and environments you might very well be able to do something useful. For example the increasing of temperature gradually is in fact one such attempt.

    If you had a very good understanding for example of a given gene and its mutations in an organism throughout history and in different evironments, you ought to be able to predict something of how it would act if inserted into another organism, and if it is a very successful gene it may have a great impact on "evolution". But it is probably 99% fantasy if you think those picture books illustrating "future creatures" are going to be what will come to pass.

    The only meaningful answer to this question is, if you have full control over the environment can you direct evolution of an organism to develop in your desired direction. Of course this is possible, happens every day in the lab. But once you get away from talking about the evolution of say a given gene, and start talking about what a creature looks like, I think this is beyond our current knowledge though possibly not out of reach if we had far more powerful, half-sentient computers handling most of it. We are talking more about genetic engineering though now, not evolution. Possibly if we had a way to describe biomes and evolutionary stresses on organisms it might be possible to predict things like giraffes' necks elongating. Deducing the structure of an eye or a human's gait would seem to be far more difficult.
  • Of course, by itself, the experiment proves little. However, a reproduceable experiment that suggests, in even a small way, predictable genetic responses to environmental pressures is very interesting. Sure, we want more than two runs, but the results so far seem very convincing.
  • by m0nstr42 (914269) on Saturday May 20, 2006 @10:04AM (#15371944) Homepage Journal
    We're all victims here, I think. From TFA: "Conceivably, if scientists can predict how the microbes will adapt to changes in their environment, they can develop antibiotics that won't be rapidly rendered ineffective by stronger, successive generations." That's probably the real goal, the message just gets mangled by some dumbassed reporter.

    We've been working at predicting evolution and using evolutionary results to explain why animals have certain characteristics for quite some time. c.f. Evolutionary Game Theory [wikipedia.org], Behavioral Ecology [wikipedia.org], Adaptive Dynamics, etc. Of course these are mostly all theoretical results. The guys from TFA are doing experimental research that happens to verify the theories, which is in itself pretty cool - it's hard to do evolutionary experiments for obvious reasons. Using bacteria isn't a particularly new idea, but modern technology is enabling more sophisticated and precise experiments.
  • It has been know for thousands of years that a species' evolution can be predicted given a set of selecting factors (notice i used that instead of environment) and then made to follow that path by applying those factors. Its called selective breeding.

    Natural environment selection is just one form of selection. But the farmer can also be the "environment" and force a certain selection. He can select for milk-producing capacity in dairy cows or goats. He can select for bulkiness in beef cattle or hogs. He c
  • In a way, yes, I knew it some kind of primate will evolve in the cave, and I knew it that the military will do somethig retarded, like they do in all movies, so bombing was a bad idea from the onset.

    But hell, did ANYONE expect that they'll beat the aliens with Head & Shoulders? I totally didn't see that coming. But it was lame nonetheless.

    We're talking about the movie, right, guys? ..guys?
  • My philosophy professor in college once said that if you know enough about any environment, everything in that environment is predictable.

    -ted
  • I am a doctor, but I don't play one on TV. That aside, I've always thought that the so-called 'eye of the needle' is the most interesting part of evolution. What I mean by that is: When there are severe constraints on the survival of a species which happen over a few short generations (i.e. climate changes), remarkable changes can occur. In short, evolution proceeds quickly. If the environmental changes are too catestrophic, the species cannot change and becomes extinct. If the climate changes are too slow,
  • Any Star Trek fan knows that evolution will result in small boned guys with expanded craniums, like the Talosians. And then a few million years later, we'll evolve into those glowing light energy beings, like the Organians.

    NO wait, in Voyager Janeway and Paris go thru evolvo-tronic rays and ends up a slug.

    I suppose that between the '60s and the '90s, our notion of evolution has devolved.
  • Harry Seldon

    */cough*
  • > the possibility that we can predict the evolution of a species, given
    > environmental factors.

    That it will occur: definitely, and in most cases too trvial to mention.

    That the species will successfully adapt to a specific new and controlled environment, and survive: You can get good odds on it, until the "OOPS, we turned up the heat too much for that strain" happens.

    That a given species will survive environmental changes when those changes are unpredictable in themselves: Not just no, but HELL no.

    The
  • I will be impressed if they can get single cell organisms to evolve into multi-cell organisms. Now that would be groundbreaking. I think the key would be to somehow put the organisms into a situation where they would have to work together as one to survive a common threat or predator. The thing is, it might not take several of the same organisms but a few different ones with varying skills/abilities that complement each other.

    What do other slashdotters think of this?

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