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Nabokov and Evolution

Carl Zimmer has a wonderful article at the New York Times on the confirmation of Vladimir Nabokov's once-ridiculed idea about the evolution of his favorite group of butterflies, the Polyomattus blues. In 1945, when Nabokov published his idea that the butterflies had made their way from Asia, across the Bering Strait, and down to Chile in five different waves, there was no way to test his hypothesis. Today, thanks to research methods built on the discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA, it's possible to construct evolutionary trees by isolating and comparing genes from closely related organisms. And that's just what a team led by Naomi Pierce at Harvard has done with these beautiful insects. Zimmer's article explains why their findings confirm Nabokov's hypothesis.

Pierce's team used some of the most advanced tools available to biologists. But their research fundamentally relies on Nabokov's painstaking efforts to develop an accurate classification of the different species within the group--classifications that the team re-examined and found reliable. To me, this is an example of the most interesting kind of biological research: the melding of advanced investigation of molecules with old-fashioned close and patient observation of organisms, both fueled by passionate creativity.

Zimmer's blog post has links to his Times article, to the Pierce paper, and to Nabokov's monograph. Read More 
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David Pogue on Spider Silk's Strength Follow-Up

Here's an excerpt of David Pogue's Making Stuff: Stronger episode, taken from the PBS News Hour:

Later in the episode, Randy Lewis gives a nifty explanation of dragline silk protein's strength using Legos, springs, and zippers. If you want to learn more about how such an extraordinary material has evolved, read Chapter 6 in Spider Silk. And if you get a chance to catch the whole episode in future, it's well worth your time.  Read More 
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David Pogue on Spider Silk's Strength

CBS News has a preview of David Pogue's spider silk segment on his new Nova: Making Stuff series on PBS. This should be fun. I'm interested to see whether Randy Lewis or any other spider silk experts get a chance to explain why copying spiders' ability to make silk in the quantities we desire is so difficult.  Read More 
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Coyne on the BSC

We wrote Spider Silk for two reasons. First, we wanted to share the wonders of spider silk and reveal how it allows spiders to take advantage of their surroundings in surprising ways. But second, we believe spiders and spider silk can show nonbiologists, in concrete detail, how the theory of evolution explains the mind-boggling variety of living beings on Earth.

We found Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr's book Speciation invaluable as we wrestled with how best to present some of this information. For nonbiologists, the questions of what exactly defines a species and how species become and remain distinct from each other are often perplexing--just as they were for Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace before they independently arrived at their brilliant insight. Yesterday and today, over at his Why Evolution Is True site, Coyne explains why the "biological species concept" (BSC) is the most useful way to think about species:

"What is the origin of species? Under the BSC, that question becomes equivalent to 'What is the origin of reproductive isolating barriers between closely related species?' And that is a much more tractable question."

Highly recommended reading: Part 1 and Part 2Read More 
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