Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Wind In The Willows and evolution

Ratty was a water vole. A beady eyed rodent.

J. Andrew DeWoody of Purdue University has made a discovery about voles which is causing a rumble in the scientific world. Voles are the world's fastest evolving mammal.

Purdue University research has shown that the vole, a mouselike rodent, is not only the fastest evolving mammal, but also harbors a number of puzzling genetic traits that challenge current scientific understanding.


The study focuses on 60 species within the vole genus Microtus, which has evolved in the last 500,000 to 2 million years. This means voles are evolving 60-100 times faster than the average vertebrate in terms of creating different species. Within the genus (the level of taxonomic classification above species), the number of chromosomes in voles ranges from 17-64. DeWoody said that this is an unusual finding, since species within a single genus often have the same chromosome number.


A final "counterintuitive oddity" is that despite genetic variation, all voles look alike, said DeWoody's former graduate student and study co-author Deb Triant.

"All voles look very similar, and many species are completely indistinguishable," DeWoody said.
The research is focused on mitochondrial DNA and its unique ability to insert itself into the vole's nulear DNA causing rapid evolutionary change in the animals. It is hoped that the vole model will provide a greater opening into genetic therapy studies.

Of course, there are those who believe Ratty couldn't possibly be a creature of evolution, which prompted this Minnesota newspaper editor to weigh-in on a debate which is taking place in the "letters" pages of his paper.

I’ve hesitated to wade into the ongoing evolution debate that has been raging again in recent weeks in our letters section, in part because it often seems people’s minds are made up on the issue. That’s unfortunate, because those who take the view that evolution does not occur are, in essence, rejecting biological science as we know it today— since evolution is among the foundations of modern biology.

And when large numbers of Americans reject one branch of science, it is that much easier to sow doubt in their minds about other forms of science. If biology is based on a ruse, why not physics, or chemistry, or astronomy? Why believe the warnings of climate change if all science is political and anti-religious?

This is a concern that is uniquely American, since America is the only western nation where a majority of residents say they don’t believe in evolution.


Despite all the evidence, it is a disturbing fact that the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution has fallen in recent decades. And that is certainly not the result of any lack of evidence for evolution. Sad to say, organized religion— especially the growing number of fundamentalist sects— must share a good bit of the blame for this trend. These groups are actively engaged in the diseducation of America and it’s frightening to think of the long term implications of this organized effort. This is a nation where science and sound education have played key roles in our success. To abandon science, and remove critical information from our student’s classrooms is flirting with disaster. (Emphasis mine)
There has, to date, been no apparent move by the Bush administration to pass legislation banning research on voles. But, wait for it. It's coming.

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