Responding to Felsenstein, Schaffner and Harshman at The Skeptical Zone

Here is the text of a comment I posted at The Skeptical Zone in response to comments by Joe Felsenstein, Steve Schaffner and John Harshman on my Nature Ecology and Evolution blog on human bottlenecks:

Thank you all for interacting with my Nature Ecology and Evolution Community blog, and thanks to Vincent Torley for posting here. Vincent kindly sent me a personal email pointing out this thread to me and asking me to specifically interact with comments made by Steve Schaffner and Joe Felsenstein. I will also comment on John Harshman’s comments as he is making the strongest case against a bottleneck of two, which was not mentioned explicitly by Dennis Venema in his book chapter. Continue reading “Responding to Felsenstein, Schaffner and Harshman at The Skeptical Zone”

Marcus Wallenberg Prize 2017

This blog was first posted at Nature Ecology & Evolution Community on 31 October 2017

Last week in Stockholm the forest geneticist Prof. Ron Sederoff was awarded the Marcus Wallenberg Prize. Informally known as the “Nobel Prize for Forestry”, this two million Swedish Krona award is presented by the King of Sweden each year. It is the first time for a decade that the prize has gone to a biologist.

In the 1980s, Ron Sederoff realised that molecular genetics had the potential to transform research on trees. Continue reading “Marcus Wallenberg Prize 2017”

Adam and Eve: a tested hypothesis?

This blog was written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community where it is posted here.

Comments on a recent book chapter

Does genomic evidence make it scientifically impossible that the human lineage could have ever passed through a population bottleneck of just two individuals? This is a question I am asked semi-frequently by religious friends. With my current understanding of the genetic evidence, I can’t state categorically that it’s impossible. In this view, I find I differ from a recent book chapter on the topic. I’m writing this blog to run my thoughts past other biologists, and check I am not missing something. Continue reading “Adam and Eve: a tested hypothesis?”

Email to Dennis Venema about human population bottlenecks

A few months ago, I was reading a new book by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight entitled Adam and the Genome. I was surprised to find a claim within the book that the past effective population size of humans has definitely never dropped below 10,000 individuals and that this is a fact of comparable scientific certainty to heliocentrism. I emailed Dennis Venema, the biologist author of the book, to query this. Unfortunately, he has not yet responded. I therefore remain unconvinced that it is a scientific impossibility for human beings to have all descended from a single couple. If I am wrong, though, I would like to know. I therefore post my email here, in hopes of garnering responses to my objections. Continue reading “Email to Dennis Venema about human population bottlenecks”

“Abundant bioactivity” of random DNA sequences?

This blog was written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community where it is posted here.

Probing the claims of a recent study

Readers of this blog will be aware of the recent Nature Ecology and Evolution paper entitled “Random sequences are an abundant source of bioactive RNAs or peptides”. Rafik Neme, the first author, posted an engaging Behind the Paper blog here.

On a quick look, I thought the study might be the beginnings of the solution to the mystery of orphan genes. (I posted about orphan genes here a few months ago.) The paper appears to demonstrate that an unexpectedly high percentage of random 150 base-pair DNA sequences are functional when expressed in E. coli. If true, this would suggest that de novo gene evolution could occur easily from junk DNA. Continue reading ““Abundant bioactivity” of random DNA sequences?”

Darwin’s abominable mystery

This blog was written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community where it is posted here

One of the hidden gems of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is its library. I spent several happy hours there researching a recent letter to Nature Ecology and Evolution, published in June under the title “The deepening of Darwin’s abominable mystery“.
Continue reading “Darwin’s abominable mystery”

The evolutionary mystery of orphan genes

This blog was written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community where it is posted here.

Every newly sequenced genome contains genes with no traceable evolutionary descent – the ash genome was no exception

This week in Nature I and my co-authors published the ash tree genome. Within it we found 38,852 protein-coding genes. Of these one quarter (9,604) were unique to ash. On the basis of our research so far, I cannot suggest shared evolutionary ancestry for these genes with those in ten other plants we compared ash to: coffee, grape, loblolly pine, monkey flower, poplar, tomato, Amborella, Arabidopsis, barrel medic, and bladderwort. This is despite the fact that monkey flower and bladderwort are in the same taxonomic order (Lamiales) as ash. Continue reading “The evolutionary mystery of orphan genes”

Ash tree genomics in response to ash dieback

This blog was written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution Community where it is posted here.

The ash tree genome project published in Nature today began, for me, with a lunchtime conversation with Andrew Leitch in the SCR bar at Queen Mary University of London in early November 2012. Ash dieback had been found in natural woodland in England for in late October. Such was the seriousness of the likely environmental impact of the disease that the Prime Minister had convened the emergency COBRA committee to discuss the government’s response. Continue reading “Ash tree genomics in response to ash dieback”

Phenotypic plasticity drives cichlid radiations?

This blog was first posted here at Nature Ecology & Evolution Community on 8 December 2016

Rapid convergent radiations and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

At the Royal Society last month, I was listening to proponents of the “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES). Patrick Goymer has blogged this meeting for Nature Ecology & Evolution, and tweets from it can be found on Storify. The debates have rumbled on in the back of my mind since, especially the contention that phenotypic plasticity is too neglected in evolutionary biology. I was therefore fascinated to stumble upon a paper in press at Molecular Ecology which suggests an impressive case of phenotypic plasticity accelerating evolution. Ralf Schneider and Axel Meyer argue that rapid, convergent radiations of cichlid fish in East African Lakes have been greatly facilitated by morphological plasticity, and its fixation as regulatory networks degenerate. “The cichlids of Africa’s lakes impress us mightily with what evolution can do in a short space of time”, wrote Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show on Earth (Bantam Press, 2009). Will these radiations become textbook examples of the EES in action?

Telegraph article: British woodlands need diversity from around the world

This article was written for The Daily Telegraph and is published online here.

Foreign tree species are needed to help preserve Britain’s woodlands from disease, argues Dr Richard Buggs.

Trees in Britain do not have enough genetic diversity to cope with a global influx of pathogens.

As global trade introduces new pests and diseases, we face ecological and economic disaster as one after another tree species succumb to imported diseases. Continue reading “Telegraph article: British woodlands need diversity from around the world”