Campus Professors Shed Light on Evolutionary Processes in New Paper

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Homoplasy and Evolution

Andrew David King talks about a recently published article on homoplasy and evolution.

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Correction Appended

Scientific understanding of the processes implied by the term "evolution" is itself not yet done evolving, and one need look no further than a recent article authored by three UC Berkeley professors to see this.

The paper, published Feb. 25 in the journal Science, explores the concept of homoplasy - which occurs when two species of unrelated ancestry express similarities as a result of convergent evolution - and its larger function in the consideration of evolutionary biology and genetics.

The research was a collaboration between integrative biology professors David Wake and Marvalee Wake - UC Berkeley faculty since 1969 - and Chelsea Specht, an assistant professor in the department of plant and microbial biology.

"Evolution is an opening flower. It keeps blooming, it keeps expanding, diverging and differentiating, and giving you newness," David Wake said. "So when you see two different things that end up in the same place and you know that they're not related, that tells you there's something else happening. If you see a correlation, you're opening Pandora's box."

The idea of homoplasy and its place within the study of evolution are not necessarily new ideas, especially not for David Wake, who said he has published several pieces related to the topic - which became a "theme" in his research by 1963.

Despite this, he said that a modern consideration of homoplasy can open the door to scientific questions that were in past decades thought to be extremely difficult or even impossible to answer.

"This paper is saying, 'Finally, we can begin to look at these old concepts again now that we have a way to study them, and take advantage of them and really learn something new,'" David Wake said.

According to Marvalee Wake, Specht - a former Fulbright Research and National Science Foundation fellow - provided insights into homoplasy from another scientific angle, which played an important role in widening the scope of the article.

"Dave and I have been working on these questions for a long time, and we wanted to get a botanical perspective into the paper, too," Marvalee Wake said. "We knew Chelsea's work, and we liked her very much - she is a dynamite young botanist, and Dave and I are both animal people. I think it worked very well. I think it gave a much more diverse but complete picture of what's going on across the biological science of evolution."

Specht spoke of the "plasticity" of genetic data and said that the in-depth study of homoplasy will hopefully provide insights as to why genetically different organisms evolve with similar phenotypes, or sets of observable characteristics.

"By using these evolutionary endpoints, we can better understand the workings of genetics and the power of genes to be used in different ways to make the same end," Specht said. "Similar things that have evolved independently are really likely to be important traits for adaptive purposes. But they could also be random."

According to Marvalee Wake, the reaction to the paper from the scientific community has been positive thus far.

"I love that the homoplasy studies are taking sometimes confounding cases of distantly related species that have common traits and looking at what's really going on there," said Laurie Issel-Tarver, an assistant professor of biotechnology and biology at Ohlone College in Fremont.

David Wake said that the group's intent was to demonstrate the utility of homoplasy for biology in general.

"Homoplasy is a tool - that's the message of that paper," he said. "It's not just some intellectual curiosity, but it actually is useful in biomedical research on many, many different levels. We're trying to show that homoplasy is a really general phenomenon - almost like a principle of biology."


Correction: Monday, March 7, 2011
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Wake has published approximately 400 pieces on homoplasy. In fact, he has published approximately 400 pieces total, several of which were about homoplasy.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Andrew David King at [email protected]

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