Biology New Net posted a press release today from the American Institute of Physics: Researchers dig through the gene bank to uncover the roots of the evolutionary tree. It advertises the work of William Duax and his colleagues, including some high school students who work in his lab on Fridays.
Ever since Darwin first published The Origin of the Species, scientists have been striving to identify a last universal common ancestor of all living species. Paleontological, biochemical, and genomic studies have produced conflicting versions of the evolutionary tree. Now a team of researchers, led by a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and including area high school students, has developed a novel method to search the vast archives of known gene sequences to identify and compare similar proteins across the many kingdoms of life. Using the comparisons to quantify the evolutionary closeness of different species, the researchers have identified Actinobacteria, a group of single membrane bacteria that include common soil and water life forms, as the base of the evolutionary tree. They will present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Crystallographic Association (ACA), held July 28 – Aug. 1 in Boston, Mass.What they did was to identify all the S19 and S13 sequences they could find in GenBank. (S19 and S13 are relatively poorly conserved ribosomal proteins on the small subunit.) When they constructed a phylogenetic tree from these sequences they identified Actinobacteria as the probable last universal common ancestor (LUCA).
They will be presenting their results
It's too bad Duax and his students didn't come to Evolution Ottawa 2012 earlier this month. He and his students could have enjoyed a lively discussion of their results and the problems associated with constructing a universal tree of life. It would have been a real educational experience for the high school students and a real cultural experience as well. (They could have tried poutine and Beaver Tails. )
Duax has played a leading role in reaching out to high school students in the Buffalo area and I think he deserves a lot of praise for his efforts over the past two or three decades. However, there's something troubling about the science and I think he puts his finger on the problem in a recent interview [Dr. William Duax - Science Mentor].
Where would your research be without the aid of the students who have helped you over the years?Lots of us scientists have lost their funding and most of them would be excellent high school mentors if they had a bit of money and a cheap research project. But let's not forget that sometimes there's a very good reason why scientists don't get funded; for example, their proposal might be "controverial" (i.e crazy).
Because our goals are controversial and considered by a majority of biologists in the world to be impossible, I have no funding for the research program. I have received some support from friends and local charities for the training program. Those funds have been used to provide stipends to some of the high school students and college student mentors and programmers, and for computers and supplies.
I have been working on this project for about 14 years without support. In the past four years the students have generated the data needed to substantiate our conclusions and the students are writing manuscripts that we will submit to national and international journals.
What are some of the early findings you’ve achieved thanks to your work mapping the genetic code of bacteria?
We have a significant body of data that supports our conclusion that the bacterial phylum of Actinobacteria (which includes the bacteria causing tuberculosis and leprosy) includes the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). We can also demonstrate that at least six species in that phylum use only half of the coding system used in man. (The code used in man is erroneously called the universal genetic code.) We also have uncovered strong evidence that just four of the 20 common amino acids, Glycine (single letter code-G), Alanine (A), Arginine (R) and Proline (P) define and maintain protein shape and may have been the first amino acids to assemble into proteins. Because the single letter codes for these four amino acids spell GARP, we refer to our work as “Evolution According to GARP” with apologies to John Irving.
Should universities/departments exercise some control over who mentors high school students?