Posted by: Jeremy Fox | July 9, 2012

Evolution 2012: Sunday notes

Fairly short tonight , I’m exhausted and I need to go to bed. Indeed, my exhaustion today caused me to embarrass myself when Elisabeth Pennisi, who writes for Science, asked me some questions about the meeting. I know who she is, I read her work every week, but I was so tired I just thought she was some random well-wisher. She was asking me questions about the meeting and I was just blathering semi-coherent responses. I realized what I’d done later and sent her an apologetic email with more sensible answers to her questions. But if anyone has somehow gotten the mistaken impression from this blog that I’m the slickest science communicator around, let me be the first to disabuse you of that notion.

The talk of the day for me was the very first one I saw. Susan Bailey talked about an extraordinary and totally unexpected result that cropped up in her work on experimental evolution of Pseudomonas fluorescens. She found not one but two synonymous mutations that increase fitness, by 6-8% (a quite non-trivial increase). The result is airtight: she transformed each of these mutations into the ancestral genetic background and showed that it increased fitness, despite being synonymous. Apparently “silent” mutations need not be so silent after all! She and her lab have some ideas as to how this could possibly happen, which they’re pursuing right now. Could be something like effects on rate of transcription or something. But even as it stands, just knowing what they know, it’s the most unexpected and potentially-important result I’ve seen so far.

Saw lots of stuff on evolutionary rescue today. Models and empirical work. Some of this stuff I’ve seen before, some of it was new to me. All of the experiments seem to work exactly as predicted. Always heartening to see real organisms behaving exactly the way theory says they should.

Also saw a really nice modeling talk extending Fisher’s geometrical model to the case of a directionally-moving optimum “chased” by an evolving population.  Actually had some relevance to the evolutionary rescue work. And made some predictions that would be totally straightforward (but a massive amount of work) to test with microbial evolution experiments. And I can’t remember who gave it as it wasn’t on my schedule until the last minute, and I’m too exhausted to look it up…

My own talk was today. Far from my best performance; I threw in some spontaneous jokes that ate up too much time. So I ended up running long, and the jokes didn’t even get very big laughs. The bit at the end that got cut off was just arm-waving speculation, so it’s not as if the audience missed out on too much, but still. Running long is a pretty amateur-hour thing to do for someone who’s done as many talks as I have. Hope I didn’t disappoint any readers who showed up assuming that my talks must be as awesome as my blog. I mean, I don’t think I was terrible or anything, and some folks were nice enough  to complement me afterwards, but I hold myself to high standards and I don’t really think I lived up to them today.

It was a good day for chats in the hallways with friends and colleagues, the sorts of conversations  that cause you to miss talks you were planning to see, but that’s ok because they’re good friends and good colleagues and good conversations. That sort of thing is why I love attending meetings like this.

And several people came up today and said how much they like the Oikos blog, which was really flattering. Thanks everybody! Keep watching this space, because I’m going to have a pretty big announcement to make in a couple of days…


  1. a book?

    • You’ll just have to wait and see now, won’t you? 😉

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