Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Genes, lost and found

There's a famous anecdote about British biologist J. B. S. Haldane.  Haldane was a brilliant geneticist and evolutionary biology but was also notorious for being an outspoken atheist -- something that during his lifetime (1892-1964) was seriously frowned upon.  The result was that religious types frequently showed up at his talks, whether or not the topic was religion, simply to heckle him.

At one such presentation, there was a question-and-answer period at the end, and a woman stood up and asked, "Professor Haldane, I was wondering -- what have your studies of biology told you about the nature of God?"

Without missing a beat, Haldane said, "All I can say, ma'am, is that he must have an inordinate fondness for beetles."

There's some justification for the statement.  Beetles, insects of the order Coleoptera, are the most diverse order in Kingdom Animalia, with over four hundred thousand different species known.  (This accounts for twenty-five percent of known animal species, in a single order of insects.)  The common ancestor of all modern species of beetles was the subject of an extensive genetic study in 2018 by Zhang et al., which found that the first beetles lived in the early Permian Period, on the order of three hundred million years ago.  They survived the catastrophic bottleneck at the end of the Permian and went on to diversify more than any other animal group.

One striking-looking family in Coleoptera is Buprestidae, better known as "jewel beetles" because of their metallic, iridescent colors.  Most of them are wood-borers; a good many dig into dying or dead branches, but a few (like the notorious emerald ash borer, currently ripping its way through forests in the northern United States and Canada) are significant agricultural pests.

A few of them have colors that barely look real:

An Australian jewel beetle, Temognatha alternata [Image licensed under the Creative Commons John Hill at the English-language Wikipedia]

What's curious about this particular color pattern is that beetles apparently had a gene loss some time around the last common ancestor three hundred million years ago that knocked out the ability of the entire group to see in the blue region of the spectrum.  This kind of thing happens all the time; every species studied has pseudogenes, genetic relics left behind as non-functional copies of once-working genes that suffered mutations either to the promoter or coding regions.  However, it's odd that animals would have colors they themselves can't see, given that bright coloration is very often a signal to potential mates.

That's not the only reason for bright coloration, of course; there is also aposematic coloration (also known as warning coloration), in which flashy pigmentation is a signal that an animal is toxic or otherwise dangerous.  There, of course, it's not important to be seen by other members of your own species; all that counts is that you're visible to potential predators.  But jewel beetles aren't toxic, so their bright colors don't appear to be aposematic.

The puzzle was solved in a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution that came out last week, in which a genetic study of jewel beetles found that unlike other beetles, they can see in the blue region of the spectrum -- and in fact, have unusually good vision in the orange and ultraviolet regions, too.  What appears to have happened is that a gene coding for a UV-sensitive protein in the eye was duplicated a couple of times (another common genetic phenomenon), and those additional copies of the gene were then free to accrue mutations and take off down their own separate evolutionary paths.  One of them gained mutations that altered the peak sensitivity of the protein into the blue region of the spectrum; the other gave their hosts the ability to see light in the orange region.

The result is that jewel beetles became tetrachromats; their eyes have acuity peaks in four different regions of the spectrum.  (Other than a few people --who themselves have an unusual mutation -- humans are trichromats, with peaks in the red, green, and blue regions.) 

What this shows is that lost genes can be recreated.  The gene loss that took out beetles' blue-light sensitivity was replaced by a duplication and subsequent mutation of a pre-existing gene.  It highlights the fundamental misunderstanding inherent in the creationists' mantra that "mutations can't create new information;" if that's not exactly what this is, there's something seriously amiss with their definition of the word "information."  (Of course, I'm sure any creationists in the studio audience -- not that there are likely to be many left -- would vehemently disagree with this.  But since willfully misunderstanding scientific research is kind of their raison d'ĂȘtre, that should come as no surprise to anyone.)

Anyhow, the jewel beetle study is a beautiful and elegant piece of research.  It showcases the deep link between genetics and evolution, and reminds me of the quote from Ukrainian-American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, which seems a fitting place to end: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution."


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