Rice University
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From its inception, evolution has been highly interdisciplinary.  Charles Darwin was a geologist, and Ronald Fisher was a giant of both evolutionary theory and statistics.  Today the opportunity for interchange continues, and in both directions.  Mathematicians, statisticians, chemists and others bring their skills to modeling evolution and interpreting evolutionary data.  At the same time, evolutionary biology is exporting ideas and methods to invigorate fields as diverse as computer science (genetic algorithms) and the social sciences (evolution of language, culture, cooperation).   This natural interchange is hindered by departmental boundaries, but it could be fostered by a Center for Evolution that provides a structure to bridge the disciplines.

Rice researchers cover many areas of evolution, but there is a confluence of interests in two exciting areas.  One will be surprising to many: using evolution as a practical science.  We are accustomed to thinking that evolution is too slow, too buried in the mists of time, to be useful for anything.  That is not the case, for at least two reasons.  First, it has become clear that important evolution happens in real time.  This is especially true in viruses like HIV and in microorganisms like bacteria, but we can also see evolution in progress in larger, longer-lived organisms.  But even where evolution is indeed in the past, it is increasingly open to study.  Evolution leaves traces of its workings in each organism's DNA and proteins.  The abundance of new molecular data, coupled with new mathematical tools to interpret it, make the past open to scrutiny like never before.  For example, the genetic underpinnings of complex human disease can only be understood when viewed in an evolutionary framework.

As a result, evolution is moving from being a science that explains the past, to a science with important practical applications, for example in genomics and genetic engineering, in conservation biology, and in medicine.

Synthetic evolution or “evosynthesis” is a revolutionary form of green chemistry that has its roots in the well-known observation that organisms in Nature are able to produce an incredible range of natural and even new products.  Synthetic evolution harnesses the power of natural selection to either improve or develop entirely new proteins, metabolic networks and predictive approaches in medicine through the incorporation of evolutionary principles. Humanity has long known the value of “microorganism domestication” from the ancient use of yeast in wine, beer and bread production to more recent uses of microorganisms in the remediation of contaminated soils. Synthetic evolution combines modern molecular biology, molecular evolution and our knowledge of genomes to dramatically shorten the time it takes to either improve the synthesis of a desired product or use natural selection to produce an entirely novel product. Many antibiotics were initially discovered in the bacteria Streptomyces. What other potent antibiotics could Streptomyces synthesize if it were challenged by a modern multi-drug resistant hospital pathogen? Synthetic evolution can also be used to predict what is the most likely mechanism by which a drug sensitive pathogen becomes drug resistant, or the way in which viruses such as HIV or SARS mutate to escape drug regimens.

Evolutionary methods also have a great deal to tell us about endangered species and their preservation.  They can tell us which endangered populations are unique species, as opposed to subspecies or hybrids.   Molecular methods can tell us whether small populations have showed dangerous declines or have been sustainably small for a long time. They can assess the perils of inbreeding in declining populations and help devise effective captive breeding programs.  Rice researchers can and do take advantage of interactions with the Houston Zoo in this area.