Friday, November 27, 2015

In the News: Return to the Wild Crops

Fig.1. Wild turkeys in Oklahoma (Credit: Larry Smith via Flickr, 2015)

For this Thanksgiving, researchers are turning to wild animal and crop relatives to improve biodiversity. From smartphones to frozen seeds, read more about how new technology will preserve agriculture in a warming world: 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be Thankful for Pumpkins

(Credit: Ginny via Flickr, 2008)

As families around the United States begin their Thanksgiving feast, they should be particularly grateful for the pumpkin. According to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, this beloved squash survived extinction only through domestication by humans thousands of years ago.

Friday, November 20, 2015

In the News: Bones of Blue Whales

Fig.1. Blue whale from above
Credit: NOAA Fisheries, 2007)

What happens when a blue whale washes up on shore? This week in the news, scientists and students had the chance of a lifetime to study rare animals from around the world, from blue whales in Oregon to mysterious arachnids near the Dead Sea.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Mystery of European Ancestry

Fig.1.  DNA was extracted from molar teeth of this skeleton dating almost
10,000 years ago, found in Western Georgia (
Credit: Eppie Jones)

Between 4,800 and 5,000 years ago, nomadic herders swept through Europe from the vast steppe in modern-day Russia and Ukraine. These herders, part of the Yamnaya culture, made up one of three ancestral populations that formed the genetic structure of contemporary European populations. Yet findings published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications provide new details to this history and suggest that a previously unknown “fourth strand” of ancient European ancestry existed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In the News: Around the World and Back in Time

Fig.1. Charles Darwin in 1868 (Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868)

Instead of sailing to the other side of the world like Darwin, modern evolutionary biologists can scope collections for insight into ancient changes. Online digitized records, hands-on staining, and teeth hidden in collections are being used to rewrite the evolutionary history of animals:

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Teosinte Today, Maize Tomorrow

Fig.1. This photo, published in 1919, shows the stages between a simple spike of Euchlaena mexicana and an ear of maize. (Credit: Journal of Agriculture)

Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, associate professor and section chair of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California at Davis, and his team study maize and teosinte evolution. Researchers and post-docs - with backgrounds in plant biology and population biology and integrated genetics and genomics - focus on various research areas, such as genetics and genomics, how human and environmental factors have affected the adaptation and domestication of crops and more.

“Domestication (of the crop) has always struck me as a really exciting story because it’s a case where the evolution of the plant was directed by, or affected by, humans,” Ross-Ibarra said about how he became interested in maize and teosinte research.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the News: The Terror of the Midwest

Fig.1. Artist illustration of Dakotaraptor steini, DePalma et al 2015
Credit: Emily Willoughby, 2015

The recently described Dakotaraptor, found in the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, is only one of several species in the news this week who give a glimpse into ancient history. Read to learn about a baby Pentaceratops, fire-frogs, sea urchins, and more!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

C. Miguel Pinto, the Disease Detective

Fig.1. Red Queen lecturing Alice (Credit: John Tenniel, 1871)

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,”
- Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice once again finds herself in a fantastical world. A chess piece called the Red Queen describes the rules of the Looking-Glass land, claiming that no matter how far Alice runs, the girl will stay in the same place. Evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen adopted this story in 1973 to illustrate the concept of an evolutionary arms race in which species must constantly evolve to remain extant. In symbiotic relationships, like that of parasites and hosts, an adaptation in one will affect the other. Therefore these organisms continually evolve, or “run,” to counter pressures posed by the opposite in order to survive.

This type of relationship fascinates C. Miguel Pinto, a George E. Burch and Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He explores the evolutionary underpinnings of mammals and the parasites they hold. In particular, Pinto studies Trypanosoma parasites in bats.