The Continuing Adventures of the Blind Locksmith: You Can't Get There From Here

By Carl Zimmer | September 29, 2009 12:12 am

Three years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about how scientists at the University of Oregon reconstructed the 450-million-year history of a protein. You can read the posts here, here, and here. What was particularly elegant about the study was how the scientists recreated the ancestral protein as it existed over 400 million years ago, to see how it functioned. Then they  pinpointed the mutations that transformed the protein, shifting it from an old function to a new one.

Recently, the scientists tried to run their experiment backwards. They tried to turn the new protein back into the old one. And they failed. In that failure, they’ve discovered something important. They argue that when it comes to evolution, you can’t go home again.

In today’s issue of the New York Times, I describe this new research, which was recently published in Nature. (Check out the web page of the lead author, Joseph Thornton, for pdf’s of all his papers on this paleoprotein project.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (5)

Links to this Post

  1. A random walk of sorts « A Man With A Ph.D. | October 2, 2009
  1. Great story, Carl.

    It was good that you were able to include the larger implication, if only briefly at the end: that “the biology we ended up with was not inevitable.” Even if a particular mutation would be advantageous, other random mutations could determine whether an organism could take advantage of it.

    As Stephen Jay Gould was fond of emphasizing, the history of life is contingent, depending on random events. Many people think this is obvious, but some claim that evolution was set in motion with the certainty of eventually producing us. This result is further evidence that that this view is not compatible with how unguided evolution really works.

  2. steve

    this means star trek voyager has lied to us?

  3. johnk

    Wed, Oct 7. Today’s NY Times has an editorial based on Carl’s summary of Thompson’s Nature paper.

  4. that funky monkey

    When it comes to evolution, you are always home. Lotsa oxygen? You grow, oxygen’s depleted? You shrink. On the way down, you pass the point you started from like a yo-yo.

    We know so little that the more we learn, we realize how much more there is to know. Inferrential statements contradict scientific pursuits by their very nature.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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