Thursday, April 23, 2009

Darwin Live in Concert

Richard Milner is an anthropologist and former Senior Editor at Natural History magazine at the American Museum of Natural History. He also happens to be the foremost practitioner of Darwinian entertainment.

Between April 24th and May 3rd, you can catch Darwin Live in Cambridge, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

I'll be catching Darwin Live April 29th at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The New York Times' John Tierney published an article on the show earlier this year.

“Everyone should find his own Darwin,” Mr. Milner says. “The man was so large. He was a zoologist, a botanist, an explorer, a travel writer, a philosopher, an abolitionist, a doting father, a radical intellectual revolutionary with an utterly conservative and blemish-free lifestyle. He revolutionized every field he touched, and he was trained in none of them.”
If you can't make the show, you can get a copy of the CD.

Milner grew up with famous evilutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in my current hometown of Bayside, where they were known to classmates as Fossilface and Dino. Below is a photo of Gould (l) and Milner at age 12.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Giant's Shoulders X

The latest edition of The Giant's Shoulders is up at Stochastic Scribbles. I particularly like the Open Helix's pick. It's an article on computational sequence analysis ... from 1962!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Belated Birthdays

The Evilutionary Biologist is now 5 days into its second year of existence.

I was late last year too.

If I ever get a cake, I'd like one like the one Arthur Kornberg got. It has some Rube Goldberg action going on there. Check out the hi res version.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


New Scientist published an editorial by Simon Baron-Cohen on media distortion of Science.

Is this... uhh... the same New Scientist that claimed Darwin Was Wrong on the cover?

Larry Moran, Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers among others called them out on this.

Fight Infection with Infection

There was a recent article in Popular Science magazine on bacteriophage therapy. Scientists, including d'Herelle the discoverer of phages, have long recognized the value of phage therapy. In fact, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis's novel Arrowsmith (publ. in 1925) cured the residents of a fictitious Caribbean island of plague using phage.

Despite its early popularity, phage therapy never quite caught on in the West. Most speculate that the arrival of antibiotics precluded their widespread acceptance, except in the former Soviet Union (e.g. Georgia).

The article discusses some of the advantages of phage therapy.

They prey only on bacteria, never human cells, they rarely spread from person to person, and, perhaps most important, bacteria have trouble becoming immune to them. As living organisms, phages are constantly changing and adapting in tandem with their host bacteria to kill them more effectively. Phage therapy could therefore eliminate the vicious cycle in which bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, necessitating the development of new, even more powerful drugs, at which point the process begins all over again.
I'm skeptical that phages rarely spread from person to person (but the research on this is minimal if not nonexistent), and bacteria DO become immune. In fact, bacteria frequently win arms races with phage in coevolution experiments.( A good example is the trap cells I used in my virus trap experiments. Several attempts to generate phage able to infect these trap cells have failed). Nonetheless, the article is correct in that, unlike antibiotics, phage evolve. This is a powerful tool to generate new phage variants.

Unfortunately, as the article points out, this precise point makes it difficult for phage treatments to past muster at the FDA.
Although there have been no reports of adverse effects resulting from mutations, phages that don't normally nest inside the human body could potentially swap genes with other phages that do and produce foreign proteins that trigger an immune reaction. And it's impossible to say exactly how a virus might mutate when exposed to different bacteria, says Paul Sullam, a microbiologist at the University of California at San Francisco.
FDA regulation, which some would say is excessive, has slowed phage therapy research in the US.
"People in this country have a right to be incensed that we have a very different situation here than in Europe with regards to phage," says Betty Kutter, a phage researcher at Evergreen State College. "Our whole regulatory environment has been one major thing that has slowed people down."

So where does one go when they have an uncurable infection? The Eliava Institute of of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology.
Randy Wolcott calls Eliava the "mother ship of phage research," a worldwide Mecca for people suffering from antibiotic-resistant infections. Only it doesn't look like the sort of place you'd want to go with a health problem. When Wolcott visited to hunt down alternatives for his patients, the four-story facility bore a closer resemblance to a neglected sanatorium. The walls were unpainted, the rooms were dark, and the equipment looked like museum pieces. "The conditions were abysmal," he says. "Yet the science is amazing."
Perhaps, as Rockefeller's Vincent Fishetti says , the way to go is phage-based therapy.
This distinction might seem arcane to nonbiologists, but in Fischetti's mind, it's a crucial one. While Wolcott sees phages as a major therapeutic coup, Fischetti sees them as merely an intermediate step toward a new generation of even better bacteria-fighters. He contends that the uphill regulatory battle phages face, as well as the risk of mutations, make them too big a gamble for American drug companies. "Phages are going to be a boutique treatment, nothing more," he says. So he is taking an alternative approach, purifying the phage to extract the lysin, the enzyme it uses to dissolve the bacterial cell wall and kill the bacterium. Having observed that lysins were the phages' "active ingredients," Fischetti aims to harvest the lysins from them and turn them into stable antibacterial drugs. If successful, he could accomplish a double feat previously thought impossible: getting the bacteria-fighting benefits of phages to patients, while doing an end run around the regulatory Rube Goldberg machine that researchers like Wolcott face.
Incidentally, I am currently hosting a doctoral student from the Eliava Institute, Sophie Rigvava, who is characterizing the phages of Enterococcus faecalis in my laboratory.

I've posted a few times on phage therapy here, here, here and here.

Photo: Phages [in orange] prey on a lone bacterium, using prong-like proteins to anchor themselves to the cell before they inject their genes into it Lee D. Simon/Photo Researchers

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Darwin Rocks

A small team of evolutionary ecologists from Tuebingen, Germany, just finished a rock music clip about evolution which is called "Struggle for love", together with a computer program that allows the user to "select and evolve" music tunes following biological principles. This program was also used to generate the underlying tunes for the song.

All this is the result of a one-year project that was generously supported by the VolkswagenFoundation ( following a creativity contest called "Evolution Today". We cooperated with composers, musicians, film-makers, informaticians and a whole series of creative students, about one hundred in total!

Both the clip and the program are meant to attract the attention from non-biologists and make them think and talk about evolution. Hence, if you like it, please feel free to share it with your friends, relatives and students.

The Darwin Rocks! Team:
Johannes Faber
Suska Sahm
Gregor Schulte
Nico Michiels