18 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part III: Fish and more

ResearchBlogging.orgGiven that disputes over the existence and meaning of the phylotypic stage and the hourglass model have simmered in various forms for a century and a half, the remarkable correspondence between the hourglass model and gene expression divergence discovered by Kalinka and Varga and colleagues would be big news all by itself. But amazingly, that issue of Nature included two distinct reports on the underpinnings of the phylotypic stage. The other article involved work in another venerable model system in genetics, the zebrafish.

The report is titled "A phylogenetically based transcriptome age index mirrors ontogenetic divergence patterns" and is co-authored by Tomislav Domazet-Loso and Diethard Tautz. To understand how their work has shed light on the phylotypic stage and the evolution of development, we'll need to look first at an approach to the analysis of evolutionary genetics that these two scientists pioneered: phylostratigraphy.

12 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part II: The flies

ResearchBlogging.orgThe controversy about the existence of the phylotypic stage is more than some bickering about whether one blobby, slimy fish-thing looks more like a Roswell alien than another one does. It's about whether the phylotypic stage means something, whether it tells us something important about development and how developmental changes contribute to evolution. To answer such a question, we need more than another set of comparisons of the shape and movements of embryos and their parts. We need a completely different way of looking at the phylotypic stage, to see if something notable is going on under the hood. So vertebrates all look the same at the tailbud stage. What does that mean?

Embryos look the way they do because of the positions and behaviors of the cells that make them up. The cells in an embryo all have the same DNA, and the link between that DNA and those specific cell behaviors is the basic process of gene expression. (This is a fundamental principle of developmental biology.) And by gene expression, we usually mean the synthesis of messenger RNA under the direction of genes in the DNA. Different cell types express different sets of genes, and the orchestration of the expression of particular genes at particular times is a big part of what makes development happen. When considering the phylotypic stage, then, developmental biologists wondered: is the apparent similarity of embryos at that stage reflected by similarities in gene expression. Or, more specifically, does the hourglass model hold up when we look at gene expression? This was the focus of the two articles in last Friday's Nature that inspired the cool cover.

10 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part I.

Disputes and controversies in science are always a good thing. They're fun to read about (and to write about), and they're bellwethers of the health of the enterprise. Moreover, they tend to stimulate thought and experimentation. Whether scientists are bickering about evo-devo, or about stem cells in cancer, or about prebiotic chemistry, and whether or not the climate is genial or hostile, the result is valuable.

Now of course, some controversies are invented by demagogues for political purposes. The dispute in such cases is far less interesting and clearly less profitable, even if participation by scientists is necessary.

This week, two papers in Nature weighed in on a major scientific controversy that has its roots in pre-Darwin embryology, fueled by some gigantic scientific personalities and even tinged with what some would call fraud. This intense scientific dispute spawned a sort of doppelganger, a manufactured controversy that is just one more invention of anti-evolution propagandists. The Nature cover story gives us a great opportunity to look into the controversies, real and imagined, and to learn a lot about evolution and development and the things we're still trying to understand about both.