Pharyngula

Werner Arber: Molecular Darwinism

This talk has me a little concerned: it’s proposing something rather radical, for which Arber is going to have to show me some unambiguous evidence to convince me, and I’m coming into it with a very skeptical mindset. Here’s the relevant portion of his abstract:

The theory of molecular evolution that we also call “Molecular Darwinism” is based on the acquired knowledge on genetic variation. In genetic variation, products of evolution genes are involved as variation generators and/or as modulators of the rates of genetic variation. These evolution gene products act together with several non-genetic elements that can be assigned to intrinsic properties of matter, to environmental mutagens and to random encounter. We conclude that natural reality takes actively care of biological evolution. The evolution genes must have been fine-tuned for their functions by second-order selection, so that spontaneous genetic variation with different evolutionary qualities occurs at quite low rates. This ensures a relatively high genetic stability to individuals, as well as an evolutionary progress at the level of populations.

The presence of evolution genes points to a duality of the genome: while many genes act to the benefit of the individuals for the fulfillment of their lives, the evolution genes act to the benefit of an evolutionary development, for a slow, but steady expansion of life and biodiversity.

You see the problem, I hope. These hypothetical genes that do not necessarily directly affect the fitness of the individual are assumed to be promoted in lineages by a higher level of selection. This is not easily supported by evolutionary theory: there isn’t a mechanism given for individuals to maintain a gene that will only help its many-times-great-grandchildren. It is inferring a kind of foresight to evolution that is doesn’t have a mechanism…unless, perhaps, Arber is going to give use one. We’ll see. This talk will start in about 15 minutes, and I’ll update this post as he fills us in.


A simple history lesson: modern evolutionary biology is the convergence of work that began with Miescher (1874: nucleic acids) which led to molecular biology, Mendel (1876) which led to genetics, and Darwin (1859) that approached the problem at the level of organisms and species. The neo-Darwinian synthesis fused the genetic and Darwinian line, molecular genetics brought together genetics and biochemistry/molecular biology, and molecular evolution brings all three together—he seems to claim some kind of intellectual ownership of the last concept, which is what he calls molecular darwinism.

How do bacteria generate new variants? By transformation, conjugation, or transduction. All are mechanisms that transfer genes from an external source to the bacterium. Work in the 1940s demonstrated that DNA was the carrier of genetic information.

Arber gave a little summary of E. coli gene structure, which I suppose would be helpful to all the chemists here. He defines mutation as an alteration of the nucleotide sequence; in classical genetics, it’s defined differently, as an altered phenotype that is transmitted to progeny.

Mutations are rarely favorable; often unfavorable, and very often silent or neutral. There is no good evidence for directedness of spontaneous mutations. Mutations do not appear in response to a need.

He argues that there are three elements to evolution: evolution is driven by genetic variation (mutation), directed by natural selection, and modulated by isolation as a mechanism for speciation. There are multiple mechanisms generating genetic variation: spontaneous DNA sequence alteration, DNA rearrangement or recombination, and DNA acquisition (horizontal gene transfer).

So far, this is all very unchallenging and basic, at least for someone with any background in genetics and cell biology. After sitting through one talk that completely lost me with a failure to explain the basic terms of the work, I can’t complain, but I confess, I’m having trouble staying alert through all this.

Some genes can affect the rate of occurence of mutations — these are modulators of the frequency of genetic variation. He calls these evolution genes. He says neatral reality actively takes care of biological evolution, and that this is an expansion of the biological theory of evolution. This leads to an expansion of biological diversity, and, he argues, higher complexity.

I’m not very impressed. This is a combination of the commonplace and some odd interpretations. Of course there is variation in fidelity of replication that is influenced by genetic variation. Some of it is simply thermodynamically necessary: perfect fidelity is impossible to achieve, and greater fidelity has a metabolic cost, so some of that variation is utterly unsurprising. Some is; when we have organisms that have specializations to directly generate greater genetic variation — and sex is the first to come to my mind — we have a problem to explain. I don’t see that Arber has proposed anything to explain the real problems.

At the same time, what Arber said here does not make him a friend to intelligent design creationism, or creationism of any kind, despite the claims of some unreliable creationist sources, a claim that Arber has directly rejected.

I’d have to say it was a nice enough overview, but didn’t really propose anything novel, and definitely didn’t demonstrate anything that can’t be explained in the context of modern evolutionary theory.