Science is Awesome (#1)

Scientists induce multicellular evolution in yeast.

Their approach was simple: they grew the yeast in a liquid and once each day gently centrifuged each culture, inoculating the next batch with the yeast that settled out on the bottom of each tube. Just as large sand particles settle faster than tiny silt, groups of cells settle faster than single ones, so the team effectively selected for yeast that clumped together.

Sure enough, within 60 days – about 350 generations – every one of their 10 culture lines had evolved a clumped, “snowflake” form. Crucially, the snowflakes formed not from unrelated cells banding together but from cells that remained connected to one another after division, so that all the cells in a snowflake were genetically identical relatives. This relatedness provides the conditions necessary for individual cells to cooperate for the good of the whole snowflake.

In addition to providing yet more overwhelming evidence for evolution, what’s astonishing about this research is just how quickly these cells made the structural leap from single cellularity to multicellularity. In a primordial soup that had millions of years to stew, the chances of multicellularity evolving seem pretty good if a group of scientists saw it happen in less than two months. For some, the experiment was a little too simple:

Sceptics, however, point out that many yeast strains naturally form colonies, and that their ancestors were multicellular tens or hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result, they may have retained some evolved mechanisms for cell adhesion and programmed cell death, effectively stacking the deck in favour of Ratcliff’s experiment.

“I bet that yeast, having once been multicellular, never lost it completely,” says Neil Blackstone, an evolutionary biologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “I don’t think if you took something that had never been multicellular you would get it so quickly.”

Ratcliff and his team will attempt to counter this criticism directly by replicating the experiment with a type of alga that has no multicellular ancestors.

As the article points out, in the end, it is still remarkable that the yeast cells responded so readily and specifically to what, at least to me, seemed like an imprecise evolutionary pressure.  Simply creating an environment in which clumped cells were favored almost immediately prompted a genetic reaction.  If DNA is this responsive (and flexible) a tool in such a short time frame, it’s easy to see how the incredible diversity of life on this planet could have evolved over millions of years.

In other news, only three of fifty one contestants on the Miss America pageant believe that evolution should be taught in schools. There are no words.


Hell, it’s about time.


President Obama announced this week that in three years, the United States will finally end the war in Afghanistan (speech above, courtesy of PBS).

It’s a strange feeling, watching the President talk about ending a war so many of us had so little involvement in or relation to.  I am reminded of President Bush’s suggestion to combat terrorism by “enjoy[ing] life,” to resist fear through apathy, essentially .  While I have several friends who are in the armed forces themselves or have siblings who serve, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are background processes in my life’s memory, a part of my adolescent and early adult experience that is integral to the way I think about the Middle East and the role of government, but still viscerally illusionary in its details and its tangible impact on human lives.  A significant part of my conscience is glad my family has not been touched by war, that I’ve never had to worry about a family member or lover dying thousands of miles away from home, or experienced myself the primal terror of my own mortality on a battlefield. But while I feel intellectual satisfaction that our nation will no longer have to shoulder these sacrifices in blood and treasure, and I have an enduring respect for our soldiers, I have yet to feel that cathartic relief, the long release of a breath held for thirteen years. The burden of these wars has never fallen upon me directly.  I feel a certain guilt – many men and women have died or suffered irreparable wounds in order to protect my cushioned existence, but ultimately, I cannot empathize with their experience, even if I wanted to, as I have only secondary relations to it.

While I believe that having an all-volunteer, professional military is a great policy for shaping a world-class fighting force, it is difficult in a post-draft era to truly think that “the nation” is going to war.  A significant part of me believes resolutely that any large-scale endeavor involving the risk of American lives on foreign soil should require collective sacrifice – if a war is being waged to defend the public, that public should also work to ensure victory.  Even if we ourselves are not the “boots on the ground,” we should make at least some attempt, if we cannot directly volunteer, to assist and sacrifice for those who do.


Like a boomerang, but fuzzy and vegetarian.

“Pandarang” is a nonsense word.  It was birthed in the middle of an all-night Diablo II binge two years ago, as my friends and I named our characters ridiculously, with the particular zeal that emerges from the bottom of a soda can and the company of kindred spirits.  “And I shall be RawrBerries, the Barbarian!” I expect there will be additional nonsense in this blog – nonsense about politics, religion, literature, video games – the important things and the not-so-much.  It may seem strange to see a post about the Pelagian heresy adjacent to one about World of Warcraft (for the Horde), but there you go. Insofar as a public web-log of my thought will extend, naturally, from a personality, you (and I, I suppose) may sometimes feel like Jai Alai players on a circular court.  Despite the random assortment of stuffs this space will inevitably contain, I hope you find my writings here thoughtful but not pedantic, whimsical, but not irreverent.  After four years of avoiding first-person insertion like the plague, I’m just beginning to bask in the afterglow of starting a sentence with “I.”