Chance Chance Evolution (in the world of E. Coli)

by alphamonkey on June 11, 2008 · 15 comments

in Uncategorized

Evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski of Michigan State University has been cultivating a population of E. coli from a single bacterium taken 20 years ago. Currently the bacteria is at or around it’s 44,000th generation, and Lenski and his team have had the opportunity to observe evolution in action like no others before them.

…sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations – the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

That’s just cool, as is the fact that due to preservation Lenski & Co. are able to backtrack to when they think the groundwork for the evolutionary change occurred and test to see if it will occur again, and their tests further reinforce the proof that evolutionary change does not necessarily always lead to a best outcome.

Read more about it here.

Now, just for grins and giggles: Try replacing every instance and variant of the term ‘evolution’ in the article with ‘intelligent design’. Makes a whole mess of less sense then.

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  • Just Plain Bob

    “Now, just for grins and giggles: Try replacing every instance and variant of the term ‘evolution’ in the article with ‘intelligent design’. Makes a whole mess of less sense then.”

    I’m giving you The Look. 😛

  • Recycled Miffery

    The only thing this article tells me is that Darwin-humping quasiscientists have absolutely no idea what the real (rather than the perceived) arguments of IDers even are.

    This discovery presents absolutely nothing new. Are we supposed to be agog that some mutations are bad? Uh, that’s very nearly the definition of mutation, and one of the arguments against the werewolfian mythology that is at the heart of “The Descent of Man.”

    Repeat after me: There are no transitional forms. There are no transitional forms.

  • ErosErebus

    There are no transitional forms…just fossils of them. Are we supposed to be agog that according to ID some big eyed alien or spaghetti monster designed things to mutate randomly so that some mutations are good and some are bad… and the ones that are a beneficial to organism help it to become the dominant form instead of the mutant?
    The only thing your comment tells me is that god-humping quasi-religious nuts have no idea or interest in the facts.
    Evolution is fact. It happens. It is random and has no goal. You can believe that the most basic organism had the ability to evolve designed in if you want… I don’t care because it does not matter. Things will continue to evolve regardless of what you believe.
    Gravity… now there is something I DON’T believe in. I believe that everything has been designed to stick to earth in a sensible fashion…

  • Just Plain Bob

    All due respects, Eros, you can’t prove that evolution has no goal. You cannot prove the existence of a God or Gods, but you can’t disprove it either.

    Certainly, some religions strive to ignore all rational scientific fact. That’s pretty foolish. But some sciences seek to prove everything, and they can’t do that either. The capacity of humans to believe in things beyond that which they can see and touch is what has gotten us through the greatest tragedies of mankind. Faced with nothing but facts and biology, there isn’t a point to living at all. Whether it’s embodied as a God, or as abstract as Honor or Love, humans need something bigger (and unprovable) to cling to.

    Should we be agog at some big eyed alien? That depends on what you believe. Certain religions would suggest that the entire point of life is to be agog. (Worship the Lord your God, etc, etc) Should we dismay that these deities exist beyond the realm of provable fact? Only if we’ve already decided they don’t exist. But to those of us who would rather believe that Something is out there, with a plan, we can accept the possibility of intelligences so far beyond our own that their motives and logic MUST remain unprovable. Consider Vonnegut’s concept of the Tralfamadorians and our inability to see as they see. Magnify that a thousand times, and tell me I should be able to explain to you why God does what he does. I can’t, because I don’t get it either.

    I don’t think Science and Religion have to be enemies. You tell me the incredible workings of a cell, and I marvel at the kind of being that could devise such a plan. I see evolution as a massive set of dominoes. Once they’ve started, they go on their own; but someone set them up.
    The minister believes that In The Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The scientist says, well, then who created God?
    But the scientist has also been trying to convince me that matter spontaneously arose out of nothingness. And that doesn’t seem all that different.

  • ErosErebus

    Bob, a pleasant surprise to have a rational discourse about something for a change :-)
    I still maintain that evolution has no ultimate goal; It does have a purpose and function though. Some people understand evolution as a path from A to B. You start with a single cell and you HAVE to end up with an intelligent, benevolent being at the other end. You always make improvements that lead towards the goal…
    Unfortunately, evolution cannot plan ahead. If a mutation gives you and your offspring an immediate advantage or if it has no drawbacks – it stays. If you have an ability that you no longer need for survival, it is no longer an advantage. It can become diluted and become restricted or eventually disappear.
    For example, humans lost the ability to manufacture vitamin C; While we were foraging and eating lots of fruit, it did not matter if someone had a better ability to make vit C or not. Now we get scurvy if we don’t eat foods containing vitamin C…
    Compare the human eye to that of a squid, or the human lung to that of birds – in both cases we have a design that sucks compared to the others… but that is because evolution does not improve us towards an ultimate goal – it just ensures that the next generation might be slightly better adapted to deal with our current environment. If the environment suddenly changes (acidity of water, temperature etc) species tend to die out en masse. Organisms that were adapted to niche areas suddenly become the king of the castle… no goal… just survival.
    Regarding the rest of science – quantum tunneling (does not make sense, but without it most modern electronics will not work), vacuum energy, string theory, relativity… everything seems as magical an about as logical as electricity did a long time ago. For me the difference between science and religion is that apart from explaining what is known, you should be able to make testable predictions. The only prediction I normally hear from religion is that I will go to hell if I don’t start believing in something “more”.
    I don’t think science and religion is enemies – almost every advantage brought by science is used by atheists and religious people alike. In some cases religion even acts like a conscience for science… but a conscience need to be rational as well and not just emotions brainwashed into us since we were kids…

  • .alphamonkey.

    Well said, ErosErebus. I think there’s a very human need to ascribe intent to events and processes that serve nothing but themselves. I mean c’mon, we anthropomorphize EVERYTHING. See: Grimace the Shake. I think there’s some serious existential terror deep in the human brain that just recoils at the notion of something that simply exists with no consciousness.

    Likewise, we’ve spent the better part of the last 2000 years trying to find any reason beyond biology to explain our behavior and traits (leading to all manner of not-fun stuff) that, in my mind, would make us a much more reasonable culture were we to embrace the biological reasons for what we are/do. I wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins in the notion that just because X is the reason doesn’t mean we can’t actively work against that to make ourselves better.

    And yes, there’s no reason to believe that evolution has an active plan, or that it’s not filled with short-term gains/long-term mistakes. Evolution is a process, not a consciousness. A process doesn’t require a plan, it just does what it does. Ascribing motives to evolution makes as much sense as ascribing consciousness and feelings to photosynthesis, or mitosis.

    Bob, you’re welcome to say ‘Evolution is the process by which a superior consciousness created us’, but that’s not good enough for science method. It can’t be measured, verified or even disproved, and therefore it’s an insufficient answer. ‘God did it’ just isn’t enough of an answer for me, nor for a large number of biologists, apparently. There’s room enough in this world for you to accept your view and to let me hold mine.

    And before you bring up the ‘science attacking religion’ thing again… take a minute and imagine being an atheist in a country where the vast majority is christian. You don’t get to play the persecuted minority card.

  • .alphamonkey.

    Eros, let’s start a Velcro Earth movement. Too long have the gravity lovers had their way with our world!

  • ErosErebus

    Great idea alphamonkey…
    “Stop falling for gravity, join the Velcro Earth movement”

  • Recycled Miffery

    What I find to be so remarkable is that if evolution is so random, what is the point of placing controls on it and studying it in a lab? Isn’t the very observation of evolution in a controlled environment an unintended hat-tip to intelligent design?

    I find it so amazing that people still insist on forwarding the faux argument that “evolution is a fact.”

    No one seriously disputes this (at least no one with any real stake or influence). Not IDers, not anyone. Obviously evolution is a fact. But which evolution? I think a lot of the evolution “devotees” throw this out in order to make those who continue to demand direct scientific evidence, say, that thinking human beings at some forth burst forward from apes, who burst forth from lizards, who burst forth from fish, who burst forth from magic soup that randomly created itself out of nothing are, in fact, the believers in fairy tales.

    Just because I don’t believe that we are the natural, chaotic descendants of magical mother gaia and her nothingness potion doesn’t mean that I dispute the “fact” of evolution. Quite the contrary. I just don’t believe in patently obvious pseudoscientific tales of our alleged origin as a species. Science is pretty good at improving the present and assisting the future, but really bad at predicting history. We end up with absolutely ridiculous theories that puff themselves up as “scientific fact.” Have you ever tried to match up the time scales of the various disciplines of scientific origins study? The astrophysicists, geologists, archaeologists and anthropologists quite simply don’t match. They never have.

    Because they are guessing. Just like the rest of us.

    I think the neo-Darwinists are always propping up their opposition as some sort of “religious nuts” because they are projecting.

  • ErosErebus

    I don’t have a problem with recycled arguments, but some dusting off and fact checking might result in clearer arguments without the excessive use of inverted commas. I always think of Dr Evil in Austin Powers when I read things like that… but I digress :-)

    >> ..evolution in a controlled environment an unintended hat-tip to intelligent design?
    Read the article about E. Coli again. The bit where re-running it only works if you re-run it after a certain generation: a chance event can sometimes open evolutionary doors for one population that remain forever closed to other populations with different histories.

    Regarding the differences in time scales; you are correct that they did not match up in the past, but mistaken that there is still a discord. The discrepancies were cleared up once things like plate tectonics (recycling rocks and keeping them ‘young’) were discovered and understood. Measurements of the cosmic microwave background give you measurement for the age of the universe (13.7 billion years). That might also change as more precise measurements become possible.

    I am not even going to start on a species ‘bursting forth’ from another. If you look at the time scales involved you might have to choose a different description.

    I can recommend one or two good reads about the science – the mistakes and the breakthroughs, and would gladly read anything you recommend about the other side of the argument… But what I am trying to understand is that despite emerging proof (granted, some only mathematical) for what you describe as magic soup and fairy tales, you have no problem rather believing in a magic being that always existed and created everything starting with single cell organisms and programming a target for billions of years later.

    I do not refer to people who have a different point of view than me as religions nuts or neo-anything. As I see it both sides have a universe that start from nothing. I prefer the simpler explanation that only requires matter or energy to start – not the requirement for an omnipotent sentient being to arise from nothing and create the rest, including all life.

    If ecoli was programmed to evolve from A to B, then you should always get the mutation mentioned in the article.

  • Just Plain Bob

    I wasn’t playing the minority card, Alpha. And I wouldn’t call it persecution. I have no problem with “We love science.” I just don’t understand the MOTIVES behind “We love science, and also you’re stupid.”

  • .alphamonkey.

    It’s a natural reaction to ‘You’re amoral heathens who will burn in Hell’.

  • Just Plain Bob


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  • Kevin the Shark

    This is a part of a comment I found on Digg one day:

    “Any moron can have an idea that claims to explain something (eg “lightning is caused by Zeus throwing thunderbolts”). If the idea doesn’t fit observations (eg photographs show lightning being generated within clouds) then scientists dismiss it – because it’s NOT SCIENCE.There *is* an established scientific orthodoxy but it’s been accumulated over thousands of years by millions of people through painstaking research, theorizing, observation, testing etc. Yet there are several instances where the scientific world has been rocked to its foundations: Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo to name a few scientists who radically changed our view of the Universe. Their ideas might be wrong – and if someone could prove it they’d go down in history as one of the greats. The people who most want to overturn established ideas happen to be…scientists. True scientists are the ultimate open-minded, free thinkers. Maybe they’re not always objective (they’re human) but their theories must stand up to rigorous (often hostile) scrutiny or they get rejected.”

    I think it sums things up quite nicely.

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