Would you believe that Andy Schlafly, head kook at Conservapædia, wrote a letter to Richard Lenski, demanding release of his data to Schlafly and his crack team of home-schooled children? Schlafly is a creationist and ideologue of the worst sort; he has no qualifications in biology, and only wants the data because he doesn’t believe it, and would no doubt then use his vast powers of incomprehension to garble it.
That isn’t noteworthy, though. We expect creationists to act like indignant idiots when the facts are shown to them. What’s really cool is that Lenski wrote back.
Dear Mr. Schlafly:
I suggest you might want to read our paper itself, which is available for download at most university libraries and is also posted as publication #180 on my website. Here’s a brief summary that addresses your three points.
1) “… your claims, that E. Coli bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study.” We (my group and scientific collaborators) have already published several papers that document beneficial mutations in our long-term experiment. These papers provide exact details on the identity of the mutations, as well as genetic constructions where we have produced genotypes that differ by single mutations, then compete them, demonstrating that the mutations confer an advantage under the environmental conditions of the experiment. See papers # 122, 140, 155, 166, and 178 referenced on my website. In the latest paper, you will see that we make no claim to having identified the genetic basis of the mutations observed in this study. However, we have found a number of mutant clones that have heritable differences in behavior (growth on citrate), and which confer a clear advantage in the environment where they evolved, which contains citrate. Our future work will seek to identify the responsible mutations.
2. “Specifically, we wonder about the data supporting your claim that one of your colonies of E. Coli developed the ability to absorb citrate, something not found in wild E. Coli, at around 31,500 generations.” You will find all the relevant methods and data supporting this claim in our paper. We also establish in our paper, through various phenotypic and genetic markers, that the Cit+ mutant was indeed a descendant of the original strain used in our experiments.
3. “In addition, there is skepticism that 3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000.” We make no such claim anywhere in our paper, nor do I think it is correct. Proteins do not “appear out of the blue”, in any case. We do show that what we call a “potentiated” genotype had evolved by generation 20,000 that had a greater propensity to produce Cit+ mutants. We also show that the dynamics of appearance of Cit+ mutants in the potentiated genotypes are highly suggestive of the requirement for two additional mutations to yield the resulting Cit+ trait. Moreover, we found that Cit+ mutants, when they first appeared, were often rather weak at using citrate. At least the main Cit+ line that we studied underwent an additional mutation (or mutations) that refined that ability and led to a large improvement in growth on citrate. All these issues and the supporting methods and data are covered in our paper.
Wow. That was far more polite than they deserve, but good for Dr Lenski. Unfortunately, Schlafly will now use the reply as an opportunity to smugly regard himself as a serious player, and he will also ignore the substance to continue to deny that evolution occurred. But maybe, just maybe, someone in the collection of deprived children subjected to Schlafly’s tutelage will notice that real scientists can give substantial replies to his usual ignorant nonsense.