July 5, 2011 | 6
Natural history is about observation and long, deep thinking. The best natural scientists have spent lots of time thinking about what they are witness to. In 1870, while culturing bacteria, Sir John Scott Burden-Sanderson noticed bacteria was not growing in moldy cultures. While this simple observation would famously lead a line of inquiry with many scientists confirming the healing power of various Penicillium moulds for decades to come, it has been known since the time of ancient Greeks and Indians that something about certain moulds kept infections at bay. This simple observation, followed by further observations and eventually by experimental work by Alexander Fleming and others, has saved innumerable lives and contributed to sparking a medical revolution isolating novel compounds that prevented limbs from being hacked off and septic shock.
While the medicinal aspect of this story is fascinating in its own right, there is a deeper, more fundamental story that needs to be unleashed. A tale of conflict, struggle and – sometimes – love lost and gained. We need look no further than the natural world around us to gather a sense of drama and awe. It all begins with a question, often starting with ‘why’. The journey to the answer never has an ending either. And it shouldn’t.
The isolation of penicillin from the mould is only a miniscule aspect to the story of the mould, even though it has tremendous implications for our own species. To understand why the mould secretes a compound that saves the lives of an entirely separate array of species, we have to understand how this creature evolved over millions of years in the context of its complete set of interactions. The mould exists in a habitat, subject to a climate and surrounded by an assortment of other species. Some species are ambivalent to mould’s existence, while other species are dependent upon it for their own survival. This set of interactions are part of the mould’s ecology and shape how it behaves on its day-to-day, generational lifespan.
Some colonies of the mould are susceptible to the species it interacts with to their own demise while other colonies may sustain these interactions and survive. Of course, it is only the survivors which are able to grow, propagate or otherwise reproduce ensuring its traits are inherited in subsequent generations. This changes the proportion of individuals in each population of a species that carries any given heritable trait every generation. Didn’t get Uncle Walt’s 3-inch long ear hair? No? Count yourself lucky! If you go on to reproduce, you will ensure that future generations might get a little less auditorially hairy. Of course, as the populations shifts their traits, it affects all living things in their spheres of interaction. These changes over any period of time are a species evolution.
Most of the time changes are subtle, barely noticed like moulds passing through the soil at night. Perhaps a small chemical change to a protein, a behavioral adaptation, or just the luck of the draw in not being eaten that day. But one thing is certain, evolution occurs within the context of ecology. The goal of this new blog EvoEcoLab is to explore the boundaries where evolution and ecology intersect. This is a wide arena, full of interesting research in areas of population genetics, microevolution, macroecology, systematics and of course at its core the ancient art of natural history. But I hope to venture out of the “mold” per se and highlight how the field of evolutionary ecology is really an applied field with many benefits to own species.
With well over a century of work behind it, evolution lays beyond the realm of theory and scientists have harnessed its principles to improve aspects of our life such as improving the nutritional content of our food, creating more effective medicines derived from natural products, to understanding how natural processes and environments provide ecosystem services that can save cities infrastructure and money! This is the story of evolution that often goes untold or is drowned out in the noise of political and religious debates. The irony is not lost on many scientists as we defend our research against the same people who directly benefit from it.
This is why I think we need EvoEcoLab, not as merely an educational resource or ammo for combat against the anti-science crowd, but as a reminder that evolution and ecology are disciplines that allow us to grasp what affects us, what we affect and how this very real phenomenon can be harnessed to improve our lives and our interactions with the natural world. I explore a wide variety of topics related to evolutionary ecology, but may also venture out into evolution or ecology as well as variety of tangentially related topics like conservation, methodology, science communication, history of science, taxonomy among others. Some older posts from my personal blog might give you an idea of what I write about, but I plan to step it up a notch here and get more into the story of evolution as an applied science.
I also take suggestions for what you are interested to hear more about. Don’t be shy, always feel free to contact me or leave a comment if you have a burning desire for me to write about anything. I am not interested in science vs religion debates. There are many places where this occurs and I encourage you to those avenues for that sort of discussion. Since religion (or lack of) is a very personal decision and science is evidenced based and observational, I have no interest in discussing any aspect of religion in relation to the science on this blog. Please do not discuss intelligent design/creationism (IDC) unless you feel you have very valid point. If you have to think for more 3 seconds if your IDC point is valid, it’s probably not. IDC is not rooted in science and it is my opinion that it is irrelevant to any discussion of evolution. If you disagree or want to cast me off as close-minded, then fine, I can live with that. This policy might change in the future, but I doubt it.
I have been involved with research for over 9 years and have a M.Sc. degree in Biology from Penn State and a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis. Following technical research jobs at the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility of Duke University’s Marine Lab and the Center for Marine Science at UNC Wilmington I am currently an independent scientist, freelance science writer and science communications strategist based in beautiful coastal North Carolina. My research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. As a taxonomist, I have described several new species of anemones and shrimp.
I am also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where I contribute articles on a variety of aspects of marine science. My award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Environmental Law Review and on Discovery Channel’s, ScienceBlogs’, and Scientific American’s websites among others. I love spending time with my wife and two kids every chance I get, running, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about me and listen to my music at my homepage, where you can also view my CV and Résumé.
I’m not too stingy with my commenting policies. I enjoy feedback and conversation very much, so please talk often! Also, talk amongst yourselves too. I ask you refrain from personal insults and mudslinging. I won’t reply to such nonsense and you risk having your IP banned from our servers. Please don’t insult other readers, especially if they don’t know something or have some facts wrong. Instead of saying “hey idiot, of course you’re wrong, you’re such a moron” (even if that person is trolling, I know its hard, believe me!), use it as an opportunity to turn the conversation around and educate (or non-so-insultingly-debate) them in the public forum. I bet on occasion, you’ve been wrong too