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Evo in the news archive

This archive collects old episodes of our monthly "Evo in the news" feature.

The genetic toolkit for evolving a venomous bite - April, 2021
If you scrolled past the non-stop coronavirus reporting in science news last month, you might have been hooked by some obvious clickbait "Humans will probably evolve to be venomous." Uh…they will? Well, of course not. We needn't worry about (or eagerly anticipate) becoming a lineage of fanged mutants. However, a look at the new research that inspired that extreme headline does provide a fascinating glimpse into how (and how easily) venom evolves in some situations.

Viruses, variation, and vaccines - March, 2021
More than 15% percent of the U.S. is now at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19. But at the same time, new SARS-CoV-2 strains are spreading, leading to a burning question: are our vaccines effective against those new strains? Will we all need another shot for the new viral varieties in 6 months? And then again in a year? And so on indefinitely? As we face down a future that almost certainly means learning to coexist with virus in some way, it’s worth asking a big-picture question: why do some vaccines successfully beat back a disease year after year and others do not?

The new coronavirus strains and evolution's "I told you so" moment - February, 2021
It seems like new coronavirus strains are suddenly popping up everywhere – in the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and California, inspiring many anxious questions. Do these new strains spread more easily? Are they more deadly? Will our vaccines work against them? As researchers try to sort out answers these key questions, it’s worth taking a step back to ask how we got here. What’s the force behind all these new strains? Of course, the answer is evolution.

Have long wings, will travel - December, 2020
This year, many Americans are refraining from holiday travel to slow the spread of COVID-19. While we are stuck at home, though, many of us can look out the window or take a walk to appreciate a different sort of annual trek, one that continues in full swing … or, in this case, full wing: the annual migration of monarch butterflies. New research reveals how these butterflies have evolved as they spread around the world.

Human evolutionary history impacts our COVID-19 risk - November, 2020
Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have wondered why novel coronavirus affects people so differently. Some wind up on life support or die, while others don’t even notice they are infected. One factor (among many) seems to be a genetic predisposition to developing a severe infection. Now new research has traced the source of these genes to Neanderthals, our evolutionary cousins.

Is the coronavirus' ability to spread evolving...or not? - October, 2020
Early in the pandemic, a particular mutation in the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), known as D614G caught scientists’ attention. The mutation spread rapidly, and viral lineages carrying this mutation came to dominate many outbreaks. Is the D614G mutation an adaptation that helps the virus along? Here, we’ll briefly explain the lines of evidence relating to this question.

Evolution explains mosquitoes' taste for human blood - September, 2020
This summer the coronavirus pandemic forced many residents of the northern hemisphere out of air-conditioned spaces and into the great outdoors for socially distanced get-togethers, barbecues, playdates, drive-in movies, and dining. There, we became the de facto buffet for biting insects.  While we balanced our drinks, mosquitoes also had a sip … of human blood.  New research published this summer explains why some mosquitoes just can’t leave humans alone, while others prefer a nice, juicy guinea pig. The answer, of course, comes down to evolution.

Tracking COVID-19 outbreaks with evolution - May, 2020
Earlier this month, an autopsy revealed that COVID-19 began killing people in the United States weeks before we noticed. The newly discovered coronavirus victims had not traveled recently and probably caught it from someone in the community. This suggests that the virus was spreading person-to-person in the U.S. earlier than previously believed. The revised timeline also fits well with new evidence collected by scientists who use evolutionary techniques to unveil the sources and course of COVID-19 outbreaks.

The deep evolutionary history of the new coronavirus - April, 2020
For the past two months, news of the pandemic coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has rattled people across the U.S. and around the globe. Our last Evo in the news story explained how evolutionary theory helps answer important questions about the origin of the pandemic. This month we’ll dig even deeper into the virus’s evolutionary history and how those deep relationships relate to prospects for a vaccine.

Evolution of an outbreak - March, 2020
For the past month, each day has brought worrisome news: more cases of the new coronavirus popping up around the world. This virus was first identified in Wuhan China, just two months ago. Since then it has spread to Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. New diseases, like this coronavirus, Ebola, SARS, and MERS, might seem to appear out of nowhere. But in fact, these diseases are merely new to us humans. They have all been infecting other species for a long time and only recently made the evolutionary leap to humans.

A "new mode" of evolution? - February, 2020
In the age of clickbait, headlines are best consumed with more than a grain of salt. Is Thailand really in for a “Viral Rampage!” of the new coronavirus? Is Kim Jong-un’s aunt actually "Back from the Dead?" Did the United States literally cut a deal with killer pirates? Possibly...but more often than not, the truth is less sensational. So when a science news site exclaims over the "new mode of evolution" recently uncovered by scientists (as the website LiveScience did last month), it's worth digging deeper.

Experimenting with evolution to fight bacteria - January, 2020
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a killer. This bacterium causes thousands of deaths each year in the United States and was recently placed on the World Health Organization’s list of 12 antibiotic resistant pathogens that pose the most serious threats to human health. Now, new research suggests that we may be able to exploit the bacterium’s own evolutionary tendencies to beat it.

Reconstructing locomotion with fossils, footprints, and... robots? - November, 2019
Right around 350 million years ago, long before the evolution of dinosaurs or mammals, animals that looked a lot like oversized amphibians started colonizing dry land. Over the past few decades, scientists have discovered many more fossils of these critters and learned about their anatomy and diversity. But we're still not quite sure how our earliest four-legged cousins walked. A recent study brings us a big step closer to the answer.

New twists on ancient DNA - October, 2019
DNA looks like a delicate molecule: a narrow twisted ladder, perhaps two inches long, but just two nanometers wide. What would it take to destroy such a thin chain of atoms? More than one might think! Researchers who study ancient DNA have so far managed to reconstruct genetic sequences from samples up to 700,000 years old! This past month, two new studies highlighted how we can squeeze even more genetic information out of ancient remains.

'Puppy-dog eyes' produced by evolution - September, 2019
If you are a dog owner, you likely think of your dog as a true friend — a creature you can relate to and who relates to you. This connection doesn't need words. Perhaps your dog looks up at you and makes those big puppy-dog eyes, and you know his meaning: time for a treat! New research suggests this phenomenon is neither an accident nor your imagination. Domestic dogs' ability to communicate with us via facial expression is instead the result of tens of thousands of years of dogs' evolution alongside humans.

How did early mammals chew? - May, 2019
Unless you have a toothache, it's easy to take chewing for granted. We crunch through foods like nuts and fruit without thinking much about the anatomical equipment that makes it happen. But we know from fossils that our earliest mammalian ancestors didn't have a single lower jaw bone like we do today; instead, they had left and right jaw bones that could move independently. How did early mammals chew? And how has mammalian chewing evolved over the past 250 million years? Recent research reveals clues.

Another crystal clear snapshot of life in the Cambrian seas - April, 2019
The drawers of paleontology museums are crammed full of bones, teeth, shells, and other hard bits of living things that don’t easily rot away, leaving them available for fossilization. But every so often, when circumstances on ancient Earth were just right, far more than hard parts were preserved. Last month, scientists announced the discovery of a fossil bed in China laid down in one of those unusual circumstances. It provides a fascinatingly detailed glimpse of life in the ocean 518 million years ago.

Whales lose teeth, gain baleen - February, 2019
The 380,000-pound blue whale is not only the largest animal on Earth, but the largest to have ever lived on Earth. Their enormous size is only possible because of a specialized filter-feeding structure called baleen. How did the evolutionary innovation of baleen arise? New research sheds light on this fascinating transition.

One route to lighter skin, two different continents - January, 2019
Skin color is one of the most obvious physical characteristics that distinguishes one person's appearance from another's. However, the trait itself, its genetic basis, and its evolutionary history are complex. Last month, scientists announced that a gene version usually thought of as a "European" gene, for playing a major role in explaining the light skin of Europeans, was also favored among populations native to South Africa that have relatively light skin in comparison to many other Africans. How and why did these geographically and physically distinct populations wind up with the same snippet of DNA?

And the Nobel goes to...evolution! - November, 2018
Last month, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced that this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry would go to Frances Arnold (currently at the California Institute of Technology), George Smith (University of Missouri), and Gregory Winter (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) for innovations that are being used to fine-tune manufacturing processes to reduce environmental harm, produce new renewable fuels, and build pharmaceuticals that harness the power of the body's own immune system to fight disease. Their inspiration? Evolution by natural selection.

Standing on two feet or four: Switchbacks in dino evolution - October, 2018
Last month, researchers announced the discovery of an enormous dinosaur in South Africa. Ledumahadi mafube weighed as much as two elephants and lived around 200 million years ago. Scientists were surprised to find that such a big dinosaur was so ancient. L. mafube was the largest dinosaur known from its time, and the closely related sauropods (true behemoths which grew to be seven times as large as L. mafube and included the largest land animals ever) achieved their massive sizes much later. Evidence also suggests that this new dinosaur walked on four legs -- a finding that highlights the fact that evolution represents a blossoming of diversity, not a linear march of “advancement” along a set track.

A country weed with city problems - September, 2018
If you live in North America, Europe, Asia, or almost any other temperate environment, you've probably seen Trifolium repens, an unassuming white clover popular with bees and unpopular with homeowners fixated on a perfect lawn. This hardy species has spread all over the globe with an assist from humans who introduced it to new environments for livestock to graze on. But T. repens didn't stay put in those rural farmlands: as the clover was advancing into any available grassy area, cities were encroaching on surrounding countryside. Today, white clover is everywhere — in bucolic fields, urban parks, and the sidewalk cracks of bustling metropolises. Since this country weed has taken up life in the big city, it has also evolved.

Why vaccines work when drugs no longer do - May, 2018
For the past two years, drug-resistant typhoid has plagued Pakistan and is soon expected to make its way around the world. The vomiting, fever, and headaches caused by the bacterium are rarely fatal when treated — but now doctors are wondering how much longer our drugs will work against the pathogen. Interestingly, a key weapon in the fight against drug resistant typhoid is vaccination. Salmonella Typhi evolves resistance to antibiotics quickly, but has yet to evolve resistance to our vaccines, despite over a century of use. 

Evolution experiments on isolated islands - April, 2018
The Hawaiian Islands offer sun-loving tourists a chance to get away from it all in a peaceful paradise, and it is these same qualities that make the islands the perfect place to study evolution. Hawaiian fruit flies, silversword plants, and honeycreeper birds, for example, all offer particularly dramatic examples of the processes of speciation and subsequent adaptation. Last month, biologists added another organism to that list: the Hawaiian stick spider.

Scoring big pharma's match with superbugs - March, 2018
So-called superbugs, germs resistant to one or more of the medications meant to kill them, represent a new villain in the global fight for human health and welfare. Pharmaceutical companies are pivotal in combating this global health emergency. Last month the Access to Medicine Foundation announced a new way to track drug companies' efforts in this fight. Consumers, policymakers, and other drug companies can consult the Antimicrobial Resistance Benchmark to find out what companies are doing (and which are doing the most) to ensure that antimicrobials remain a useful part of our medical arsenal. But how exactly does a drug company fight superbugs?

A warmer world leads to female-biased sea turtle populations - February, 2018
Beach development, hunting, pollution, and fishing all threaten the survival of the endangered green sea turtle. Now, new research has uncovered a more unusual risk they face: lack of males. At some beaches in Australia, more than 99% of new hatchlings are now female. Older cohorts of turtles are also female-biased, though less severely, suggesting that the feminization of this population has been going on for decades. Scientists are concerned about how these all-girl generations of turtles will affect the long term prospects for the species. Why is this occurring, and what can be done to nudge the turtles back towards gender parity?

A new story of birds and beaks - December, 2017
It's a familiar story: In a population of birds, beak shapes have changed over time associated with changes in available food sources. Only this time, the birds in question aren't Darwin's finches and don't live on the Galápagos Islands. Learn about this new example of rapid evolution occurring in a wild population, literally right in our own back yards.

Urban Evolution - November, 2017
For a large segment of young people in the United States, the bright lights of the big city represent a real temptation. Continuing a trend that started more than 200 years ago, Americans (and now millenials in particular) are flocking to urban areas. Today more than 80% of Americans live in cities. The draws of this new life seem clear: entertainment, excitement, and opportunity. Of course, city life can also change you in not-so-desirable ways. Urban living has been associated with asthma, allergies, depression, and anxiety. But what about the non-human city dwellers — the bugs and beasties lurking in our metropolitan interstices? How is the hustle and bustle of urban life affecting them?

The evolution behind an agricultural showdown in Arkansas - October, 2017
This summer, Arkansas put a 120-day ban on the powerful weed killer dicamba after the chemical pitted neighboring farmers against one another. Produced by the agricultural corporation Monsanto, dicamba is meant to be sprayed on fields of soybeans that are genetically modified to resist the herbicide. But many farmers who hadn't purchased the herbicide/resistant-seed duo complained that dicamba from neighbors' fields had drifted onto theirs and damaged their harvest.

Global change drove the evolution of giants - September, 2017
We live in extraordinary times. The largest animals ever to have lived on Earth happen to be alive today. Blue whales are larger than any mastodon, dinosaur, or mega-toothed shark ever was. They can grow to almost as long as a 737 airplane and weigh about twice as much! And yet, the blue whale is not a freak of nature. They come by their size honestly; they are part of a family of extremely large-bodied filter-feeding whales that includes the gigantic fin whales and Sei whales. Nevertheless, such huge creatures beg the question, why. Why so big? As it happens, this is just the sort of question that studies of evolution can help us answer. Over the summer, while many of us were lounging at the beach contemplating the watery habitat of these massive creatures, scientists announced the results of an investigation into the evolution of body size in baleen whales.

The bacteria that changed the world - May, 2017
The make-up of Earth's atmosphere, once the domain of Earth science textbooks, has become an increasingly "hot" news topic in recent decades, as we struggle to curb global warming by limiting the carbon dioxide that human activity produces. While the changes that humanity has wrought on the planet are dramatic, this isn’t the first time that one species has changed Earth’s atmosphere. Three billion years ago, there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere at all. Life was anaerobic, meaning that it did not need oxygen to live and grow. That all changed due to the evolution of Cyanobacteria, a group of single-celled, blue-green bacteria.

Predicting the evolution of polio - April, 2017
In the 1940s and 50s, the polio virus, which mainly affects young children, crippled 35,000 Americans each year. Today, thanks to vaccinations, the disease has been completely eradicated from the United States – and from most of the world's countries. The virus lives on due to incomplete vaccination. Now new research provides clues about how to prevent some of these rare outbreaks, getting us ever closer to a polio-free world.

Natural selection hidden in modern medicine? - March, 2017
No one needs to tell a new mother that human childbirth can be challenging — and dangerous! In some impoverished areas, for every 100 live births, one mother dies in childbirth and four infants die in the first few days of life. However, access to resources and modern medical interventions, such as C-sections, prevents many of those deaths. C-sections have become so common in some populations that biologists have begun to wonder if the procedure, as it saves lives, could be shaping the course of human evolution.

Genes from our extinct relatives live on in modern humans - February, 2017
From a lithe tribesperson of the Kalahari, to a freckled redhead from Ireland, to a sleek-haired, ruddy-cheeked inhabitant of the Tibetan plateau, Homo sapiens come in many different shapes, sizes, hues, and appearances. While we tend to notice differences that are easy to spot, other "stealth" variations in human populations are not necessarily observable from physical appearance alone. Now new research into Arctic-dwelling Inuit populations points to a surprising origin for one such "stealth" trait — the ability to tolerate frigid temperatures.

Black widow virus results from evolution, not genetic engineering - December, 2016
This fall researchers announced a surprising discovery: a virus carrying genes for a toxin from black widow spider venom. How did this creepy mash-up occur in the first place? A black widow virus might sound like the product of genetic engineering — like strawberries bearing fish genes or goats that make spider-silk proteins — but it is actually the result of evolution.

GMOs struggle to stay one step ahead of evolution - October, 2016
While strawberries containing fish genes make big news, they haven't actually made an appearance at your local grocery store. In fact, few genetically modified organisms are currently sold as food in the US, but the exceptions are doozies: about 85 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered. Most of those crops are engineered for two particular traits — to resist herbicides like Roundup (which is useful because it allows growers to use the substance against weeds in the same fields as their crops) and, in the case of corn, to kill the Western Corn Rootworm, a beetle larva that eats cornstalks from the ground up. Genetically modified corn kills rootworm with a gene originally found in the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (i.e., Bt). This gene produces a protein that is toxic to rootworms, but not to humans and many other animals. So-called Bt corn has been on the market for a little over a decade; however, in recent years, the benefits of using this variety have dwindled as rootworm populations have evolved resistance to the Bt toxin. Now, scientists working for DuPont have announced the discovery of another gene from a different soil bacterium that could replace Bt once resistance is so prevalent that the Bt toxin is no longer effective.

The mutations that make us human - September, 2016
When we imagine what made early modern humans unique, it's tempting to imagine a caveperson, brandishing a lit torch, using fire to eke out a better living from a hostile environment. However, humans were not alone in their use of fire. Neanderthals and Homo erectus also used fire. Now, new research suggests that part of what distinguished early humans from their close relatives was not their use of fire, but how the human lineage evolved in response to fire.

A field guide for the new Tree of Life - May, 2016
If you are a science news junkie, perhaps you saw it while scrolling through your news feed: the new Tree of Life. Last month, researchers announced that they'd used genetic sequences to build a much more inclusive picture of the Tree of Life. But after looking at this new tree, you wouldn't be faulted for wondering, "Uh, where's the tree here?" The new Tree of Life, in fact, looks more like an exploding firework than an oak or an elm. Here, we'll explore a tool that can help you interpret different styles of evolutionary trees.

Super-Mendelian mosquitoes may fight malaria - April, 2016
A recent outbreak of the Zika virus in the Americas has brought mosquitoes buzzing onto the front pages of newspapers. With a bite, infected mosquitoes can transmit Zika to humans. While most adults will experience only mild symptoms from the virus, the results can be devastating for a fetus carried by an infected mother. Evidence suggests that the Zika virus is likely responsible for a surge of birth defects in Brazil, and nearby countries are on high alert as the virus spreads. Of course, Zika is in the news now, but mosquito-borne diseases are nothing new.

Unmuddying the Cambrian waters - March, 2016
Any scholar of history knows that the further back in time you go seeking answers, the more sparse and unreliable the clues. Paleontology is the study of the history of life, and its clues — for the most part — take the form of fossils. The fossil record is notoriously incomplete, but in general, we have more direct evidence of life in the recent past than we do of life in the most distant past. It should therefore not be surprising that one of the most studied events in evolution, the Cambrian "explosion" (which started about 542 million years ago and lasted — unlike most explosions — over 10 million years), is also one of the most enigmatic and passionately debated. Can new research bring life of the Cambrian into focus?

Will evolution doom the cheetah? - February, 2016
Few people will disagree: cheetahs are impressive creatures. These majestic cats are the bold sprinters of the Serengeti, propelling themselves at bursts of speed that are estimated to reach 75 mph, and accelerating from 0 to 60 mph as fast as a Ferrari 458 Italia or Porsche 911. Evolutionary changes to this species' heart, respiratory system, muscles and limbs have landed them the title of fastest land animal. Unfortunately, this beautiful animal is at risk of extinction. Though the cheetah's numbers have been depleted in recent history from poaching, habitat loss and the illegal pet trade, their vulnerability goes back even further than this. So who or what is the culprit?

What happens to plants that can't spread their seeds? - December, 2015
Late fall and winter usually mean lots of squash soups and pumpkin pies. These hearty fruits (yes, they're all fruits!) are easy to grow even in harsh conditions, and can be stored for a long time, making them cold-weather staples. But their ubiquity today belies a truth recently uncovered — these plants all nearly went extinct just a few thousand years ago. Why did they decline, and what brought them back? The answer to both questions, of course, is the same: evolution.

What can we learn about our limbs from the limbless? - November, 2015
"The amniote phallus and limbs differ dramatically in their morphologies..." So begins a recent study published in the journal Developmental Cell. Though you can no-doubt easily distinguish a leg from a penis, it turns out that these functionally distinct appendages share similar genetic pathways. Scientists made this discovery in a surprising way — by examining the genomes of various snake species. Snakes do not have limbs, of course, so how could they have been the key to an insight about limb development?

Is there anything truly surprising about Homo naledi? - October, 2015
On September 10, 2015, we humans added a new relative to our family tree when its discoverer, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, unveiled Homo naledi with great pomp and circumstance. The media was soon flooded with news about this "curious," "weird," "baffling," and "bizarre" new species. But if you understand evolution, Homo naledi's mix of traits is not at all surprising.

Mammals' nocturnal past shapes sun sensitivity - September, 2015
As you soak up the last rays of the summer sun, here's something to think about: if it weren't for a quirk of our mammalian evolutionary past, your body could probably produce its own sunscreen. Back in May, researchers reported that they had discovered a mechanism by which zebrafish can generate a non-pigment-based sunscreen compound known as gadusol. They also found that the genes encoding the pathway for gadusol production are widespread; they are present in other fish species, as well as in amphibians, reptiles, and birds...

Avian flu adapts to human hosts - May, 2015
With multiple columns in the daily paper devoted to Ebola's frightening rashes and bleeding, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that Ebola is far from the only emerging infectious disease that threatens human health today. Avian flu may be less dramatic and mainly infects birds, but it is no less deadly when it makes its way into a human host, with the worst strains killing 60% of people infected. We first wrote about the H5N1 avian flu back in 2005, but this is a bug that keeps coming back! Most recently, Egypt has experienced a surge of infections: 132 cases since January. All of them seem to have been passed to humans directly from infected birds. Now, new studies reveal that the Egyptian strain has evolved adaptations that allow it to more easily pass from bird to human, raising the possibility that the virus could soon evolve the ability to move from human to human — a development that would let this dangerous virus loose on humans all over the world, regardless of their proximity to infected poultry.

Killer whales get a fitness boost after their offspring are grown - April, 2015
We all know that babies and youngsters need to be taken care of by a parent, but even adults can benefit from having a mom around — at least if your mom is a killer whale. New research announced last month describes how post-menopausal orcas help out their adult offspring by leading them to salmon foraging grounds. This help is especially important during years with fewer salmon. Through their many decades in the sea, older females seem to have learned where to find the fish when times are tough and pass this knowledge on to their adult offspring. This finding helps explain an evolutionary conundrum: if natural selection favors traits that allow an individual to pass its genes on to future generations, why would any organism stop reproducing?

We are an island: the evolution of human parasite species - March, 2015
In recent years, the popular media has served up a message that might make your skin crawl: lice and bedbug infestations are on the rise and are getting harder to treat as these parasites evolve resistance to the pesticides we've used against them in the past. But did you ever stop to wonder how they've invaded our beds and bodies — not how a particular outbreak started, but how ultimately we wound up with these human bloodsuckers in the first place? Last month, new research highlighted the evolutionary beginnings — and future trajectory — of bedbugs. Taking a step back reveals that the origin of new parasites is just one example of well understood evolutionary processes.

Want a new drug? Look to evolution - February, 2015
Last month, news outlets around the world heralded what could be a major medical breakthrough. In the midst of a public health battle against antibiotic resistant germs — which have been popping up with alarming frequency, not just in hospitals but in sick household pets and in meat from the supermarket — researchers announced the discovery of a powerful new antibiotic. Teixobactin easily cured mice of pneumonia and MRSA (an antibiotic resistant staph infection), and is likely to be effective against other deadly diseases such as anthrax. Yet this promising antibiotic has humble beginnings. It is produced by a soil bacterium discovered in a sample of dirt taken from a Maine field. Turning an evolutionary lens on this story reveals the explanation for teixobactin's power and suggests that more new antibiotics might be literally in our own backyards.

New fossils are no "missing link" - December, 2014
Last month, scientists announced the discovery of 55-million-year-old fossils that belonged to a mammal from ancient India, Cambaytherium thewissi. The hoofed animal may not have been particularly distinctive looking — it would have weighed between 45 and 75 pounds, resembling a cross between a wild boar and a tapir — but it does occupy a distinctive place on the Tree of Life. Some news outlets immediately began heralding the discovery as a "missing evolutionary link" between horses and rhinos, or their common ancestor. As it turns out, neither is true...

Evolving an invasive species - November, 2014
Imagine a quintessential scene from a Golden State vacation: standing on the bluffs off Highway One, taking in a view of the beach below and a Pacific sunset on the horizon. It's classic California. Only what's beneath your feet on that cliff is not Californian at all. The succulent highway iceplant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum), a native of South Africa, was first introduced to California in the early 1900s and has since spread up and down the coast, competing with native plants for resources and suppressing the growth of native seedlings. And it's not just California. Invasive species cause serious environmental disturbances all over the world: introduced pythons threaten native wildlife in the Everglades, invasive plants have changed regions of South Africa from grassland to scrub, foreign barnacles displace mussels and oysters on Europe's northwestern coasts. In the U.S. alone, invasive species cause billions of dollars of damage each year and contribute to the threat faced by hundreds of endangered species. But what makes an invasive species in the first place? Plenty of organisms make it to new ground, but many just can't hack it and die out or remain marginal, while other species take over. Biologists have proposed many hypotheses to explain the difference, but now new research (based on a very old idea!) suggests that evolution can help us predict which introduced species are more likely to become problematic invasives.

Ebola and evolution - October, 2014
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has international medical organizations on high alert and people all around the world antsy — even those who live in the Americas and Australia, oceans away from the disease's epicenter. The disease is normally carried by animals like fruit bats, but occasionally makes the jump to humans, and when it does, it is deadly, killing more than half of those infected. However, because it is only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids, most of the world need not fear for their lives. In recent months, some media outlets, and even a scientist or two, have begun to wonder aloud whether the Ebola virus could "mutate" and become airborne — but of course, what is actually meant is whether the virus can evolve in ways that allow it to be passed along more easily, just as the flu can be spread by a sneeze. Here we'll unpack the question of Ebola's evolution a little further and see why this outcome is unlikely.

Evolution accounts for taste - September, 2014
Most of us get in line at the ice cream shop or tear into a piece of chocolate cake without giving much thought to why we like what we do. Humans appreciate a wide variety of tastes because of our omnivorous evolutionary history and the genes we carry that allow us to sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (i.e., savory) flavors. But the same isn't true of all animals. Most cats, for example, dubiously sniff at sweets. This is because, over the course of its evolutionary history, the feline lineage lost a functional gene to detect sweet flavors. Birds also lack this gene and, usually, the sweet tooth that comes with it — but there are a few notable exceptions. Hummingbirds, for example, make a proverbial beeline for honey-sweet liquids. Why are hummingbirds sugar junkies, while robins stick with worms? New research reveals at a genetic level the evolutionary changes that account for such diverse tastes.

Why the Y is here to stay - May, 2014
The Y chromosome is finally getting the respect it deserves. Since the early 1900s, we've known that the Y chromosome is responsible for making males — XX embryos develop into girls and XY embryos develop into boys — but the Y was thought to do little else. After all, at just one quarter the length of the X chromosome, the Y is relatively puny. Biologists hypothesized that the few genes it does carry contribute to processes like sperm production and testes development by helping turn on and off other genes. In fact, the Y had such a bad rap that many researchers suggested that it was on its way to evolutionary extinction. However, now, new research suggests that the Y chromosome is here to stay. Its function goes far beyond triggering maleness...

Genetic engineering vs. evolution - April, 2014
In the late 1990s, a new weapon in the fight against agricultural pests was introduced: Bt corn. The new maize variety was genetically engineered to carry genes from the bacterium Bacillus thurinigiensis (hence the moniker "Bt") that cause the crop to produce an all-natural pesticide. This meant that growers could get good yields from their cornfields without spraying on so many toxins. Since then, many farmers have jumped on this bandwagon. In 2012, more than 69 million hectares were planted with Bt crops — an area about the size of Texas! There has been much debate over the risks of this technological advance, but now it appears that the downfall of Bt corn might be the very problem that it was supposed to solve in the first place: agricultural pests, in particular the western corn rootworm. These beetle larvae eat the roots of corn plants potentially ruining the crop. In recent years, more and more larvae that are resistant to the effects of the Bt toxin have been showing up in fields and chewing their way into plants. How and why did this happen? It all comes down to evolution.

Evolutionary history is more than skin deep - March, 2014
Many of the marks that evolutionary history has left on our bodies are invisible. Lactose tolerance, a predisposition towards diabetes, genes that contribute to breast cancer, and many other inconspicuous traits are legacies of the paths that our ancestors took as they left or stayed in Africa between 60 and 125 thousand years ago. However, other markers of these unique evolutionary histories are perfectly obvious, perhaps most notably skin color. It's clear that people whose ancestors hail from different parts of the earth have differently colored skin and that this is related to how much of the sun's radiation hits that part of the planet. The less radiation, the lighter the native population's skin color tends to be. This is a great example of recent evolution in human populations. But what if we go back deeper in our evolutionary history, back to when all of humanity lived in Africa? At that time, all humans had darkly pigmented skin. A new study sheds light on how and why this skin pigmentation evolved.

The deep roots of diabetes - February, 2014
The modern diabetes epidemic is caused, not by a virulent pathogen, but by the spread of an even stealthier invader: the Western lifestyle. As people around the world have begun to eat less healthily, lead more sedentary lives, and live to older ages, adult onset diabetes (type 2 diabetes) has become common in places where the disease was previously unknown. Between 1985 and 2002, the number of people with diabetes grew from 30 million to 217 million, and this figure is expected to exceed 366 million by 2030. But the epidemic has not been even-handed. Even accounting for differences in lifestyle, some populations have been hit particularly hard. Mexicans and Latin Americans, for example, have nearly twice the chance of developing diabetes that non-Hispanic white Americans do. New research addresses these disparities. Last month, scientists announced that they'd discovered a gene that helps explain the difference in diabetes risk among many populations. In a strange twist, the gene version in question traces its ancestry back to Neanderthals! What exactly is going on here?

Bottlenecks, BRCA, and Breast Cancer - December, 2013
As tests for genes that contribute to more diseases become available and, in many cases, become cheaper, we will increasingly be faced with decisions about how much we want to know about our future health prospects. Would you want to know if you carried a gene that conferred a 60% chance of developing Huntington's disease by age 65? Or that multiplied your chances of having a stroke by five—even though the risk of having a stroke in any given year would still be extremely low? How much would you pay for a test that, for more than 99.5% of women will reassure them that nothing is wrong, but in the other cases will reveal that one's odds of developing ovarian cancer are 39%? A prime example of this situation made the front page of the New York Times last month—and highlighted the deep connections that genetic testing has to the evolutionary history of human populations...

Lumping or splitting in the fossil record - November, 2013
Rarely does pure science take top billing in the news, but this past month saw a notable exception. The front page of the New York Times was occupied by the image of an ancient hominid skull caked in dirt. This 1.8 million-year-old fossil, excavated in the Republic of Georgia, represents the oldest complete adult cranium of a hominid yet discovered. That alone would be significant news, but the context in which the fossil was preserved adds even more weight to the discovery...

Anniella The legless lizards of LAX - October, 2013
Last month, biologists announced the discovery of four new species of lizard, not in an exotic tropical jungle, but right under our noses. The new-to-science animals (from the genus Anniella) were found at several unlikely locations — including in an abandoned lot in Bakersfield, California, and near the runway at Los Angeles International Airport. But don't count on catching sight of one of these critters the next time you have a layover at LAX. First, they are small — less than 8 inches long. Second, they live mostly underground (the researchers had to tempt them out of hiding by leaving pieces of cardboard and plywood on the ground). And third, even if you did see one, you might not recognize it as a lizard. The four new species have no legs and could easily be mistaken for snakes! So why aren't these sleek, scaled creatures snakes, and how did they avoid detection for so long? The answers are evolutionary ones.

velvet worm A new old animal - September, 2013
Eoperipatus totoro doesn't look much like a fearsome predator. In fact, this two-inch long critter resembles nothing so much as a plush, candy-colored caterpillar with wriggly antennae. But this little known animal is no caterpillar. It is a velvet worm — a.k.a. an onychophoran, a group of organisms that today live in tropical regions and trap their insect prey using jets of sticky slime, a-la Spider-Man. Discovered in Vietnam and officially described just last month, this particular species may be new to science, but the onychophorans as a group have long been of interest to biologists for their important role in evolutionary history...

meat Antibiotic resistant bacteria at the meat counter - May 2013, updated June 2013
The pork chops you buy in the supermarket neatly packaged in plastic and styrofoam may look completely sterile, but are, in fact, likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria — and not with just any old bugs, but with hard-to-treat, antibiotic resistant strains. In a recently published study, researchers with the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System bought meat from a wide sampling of chain grocery stores across the country and analyzed the bacteria on the meat. Resistant microbes were found in 81% of ground turkey samples, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef samples, and 39% of chicken parts.

where's the beef No more mystery meat - April 2013
Diners sitting down to enjoy a burger couldn't be faulted for wondering, "Where's the beef … from?" After all, just a few months ago, European consumers were dismayed to discover that many products marketed as beef actually contained large quantities of horse meat. Genetic fingerprinting, which was used to detect the imposter beef, can identify meat as a particular species or even a particular population. However, other analyses of genetic data can trace the source of a patty, McNugget, or filet, not just to a particular breed or population, but back in time. Using these techniques, scientists have uncovered the deep evolutionary origins of domesticated animals (such as sheep) and major crop plants (such as corn). Now, they've applied those techniques to cattle as well. This month, a team of researchers from the Universities of Texas and Missouri announced the results of a study focusing on the origins of breeds specific to the Americas, like the Texas Longhorn. The story told by the cows' genes crisscrosses the trajectory of human evolutionary history — from wild aurochs that lived alongside Neanderthals, to Christopher Columbus and, ultimately, the American West …

fossil teeth The recent roots of dental disease - March 2013
Science has now provided an excuse for those of us used to being chided by our dentists for not brushing often enough: blame your cavities on the Industrial Revolution. New research suggests that the dietary changes associated with the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago (and with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago) caused an epidemic of tooth decay and gum disease. The culprits are oral bacteria. The human mouth is the native home of a wide variety of microbes, some helpful species and some harmful. Over the course of human history, eating more starch and sugar seems to have tipped the balance in favor of the disease-causing bacteria. Even without ultrasonic toothbrushes and mouthwashes, our ancestors may have had healthier teeth than we do!

flu Influenza, an ever-evolving target for vaccine development - February 2013
It's that time of year again. Coughing coworkers, student absences, and reminders to get your shot are sure signs that flu season is upon us. This year's epidemic seems to have struck earlier and harder than usual — all amid concerns over shortages of the flu vaccine. While some vaccines provide lifelong protection with one or a few doses (e.g., measles, mumps, and polio), the flu requires a new shot every year. And in some years, the flu shot is hardly effective at all. Why is the flu vaccine different from so many other vaccines? A look at the evolution of the flu virus can explain the weaknesses of current vaccines and points the way towards a vaccine that could provide long-lasting, universal protection.

grasshopper Grasshoppers change their tune. Is it evolution in action? - December 2012
Whizzing down the interstate, the sounds that concern most of us include the radio's tuning, conversation with our fellow passengers, and, of course, the ominous howl of a siren approaching from behind. But just outside the car door, the soundscape is quite different. On busy thoroughfares, traffic noise approximates a non-stop, low-pitched roar that necessitates shouting to communicate if one is unlucky enough to need to change a tire at the side of the road. Now, new research shows that it is not just humans who strain to be heard over the din of a highway ...

Ornithomimus A new look at dinosaur fossils pushes back the evolution of feathered wings - November 2012
Last month, paleontologists from Canada, the U.S., and Japan announced an exciting discovery: feathered dinosaur fossils in North America. When Ornithomimus edmontonicus was first studied in the 1930s, its ostrich-like skeleton earned it a name that translates to "bird mimic." Now new fossils and a re-evaluation of old ones have revealed that its body covering also fits the moniker. A newly unearthed, year-old juvenile specimen is covered in downy, hair-like feathers, and re-examination of an adult specimen turned up traces of standard feathers with a central shaft. While most popular reporting has focused on the idea that these shafted feathers may have been used to attract mates, the real news in this research lies elsewhere.

marine algae Acidic oceans prompt evolution - October 2012
It's no secret that greenhouse gases warm the planet and that this has dire consequences for the environment — whole islands swallowed up by rising seas, animal and plant species stressed by higher temperatures, and upsets in ecological interactions as populations move to cooler areas. However, carbon dioxide has another, less familiar environmental repercussion: making the Earth's oceans more acidic. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean that more carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean. This dissolved carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid — the same substance that helps give carbonated beverages their acidic kick. While this process isn't going to make the ocean fizzy anytime soon, it is introducing its own set of challenges for marine organisms like plankton and coral.

passenger pigeon What comes after mass extinctions? - September 2012
Extinction is a fact of modern life. Humanity's relentless encroachment on the wilderness has marred the diversity of life with conspicuous gaps where the Tasmanian tiger, the Passenger Pigeon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and countless others used to be. As these extinctions accumulate, the Earth inches closer and closer to its sixth mass extinction. We are all too familiar with the concept of mass extinction — a disaster strikes and sets off a chain of events that result in a massive die-off. But you may not have considered what comes next: what happens to surviving species in the wake of a massive extinction event? Recent research suggests that mass extinctions shake up life on Earth in surprising ways.

trilobite and tiger Lessons for today in ancient mass extinctions - May 2012
If you follow environmental news at all, you'll be familiar with the most common cause of extinction in the world today: habitat loss. Habitat destruction threatens the survival of some the world's most charismatic organisms — animals like the giant panda, the Sumatran tiger, and the Asian elephant. Humans have encroached on the wilderness in order to farm, mine, log, and build, and in the process, we've pushed the natural inhabitants of those areas into smaller and smaller refuges. Making matters worse, global climate change caused by our production of greenhouse gases is altering the environments within those refuges, forcing species to contend with new challenges. While these might seem like entirely modern problems, recent research indicates that's not the case — and that current levels of habitat loss and climate change could have devastating consequences.

chipmunk Climate change causes loss of genetic diversity - April 2012
If you'd visited Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park 100 years ago, you probably would have encountered the alpine chipmunk, Tamias alpinus. Today, however, park visitors will have to hike up a nearby mountain to see one of these critters. That's because this species is sensitive to temperature — and over the last hundred years of global climate change, Yosemite has warmed by about 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As the temperature increased, the chipmunks retreated to higher and higher elevations where it was cooler. Today, they occupy a fraction of their original range. If climate change continues, they could be squeezed right off the tops of their mountains and out of existence.

chameleon Evolutionary history in a tiny package - March 2012
Scientists discover new species all the time, but usually these new species are microbes, plants, insects, and other forms of non-vertebrate life. Few vertebrate species have thus far evaded the curious gaze of biologists intent on understanding the diversity of life on Earth — that is, unless the vertebrate in question happens to be very, very tiny. Last month, scientists announced the discovery of not one, but four miniscule lizard species. The smallest of these new chameleons, which live in the far north of the African island of Madagascar and inhabit leaf litter, reaches an adult body size of just two centimeters.

blacktip shark Hybrid sharks aren't "trying" to adapt - February 2012
Last month, biologists announced the discovery of hybrid sharks in Australian waters. The new sharks may not warrant a marine park attraction — they look much like their closely-related parent species — but do represent an unexpected twist of biology and evolution. This is the first time that scientists have found evidence of shark hybridization — an event that was thought to be rare because, unlike the many fish that simply release eggs and sperm into the water, sharks mate. Clearly, though, the widely-distributed common blacktip shark and the Australian blacktip shark (which is restricted to northern and eastern Australia) have few qualms about each other: 57 apparently healthy hybrid individuals were discovered in the first investigation of these animals. What does this mean for the future evolution of blacktip sharks?

cheek swabbing When fighting leukemia, evolutionary history matters - December 2011
In the next few months, college students across the country will be offered the chance to save a life by swabbing cells from the insides of their cheeks and registering as a potential marrow donor with Be The Match®. The Give A Spit About Cancer campaign, which launched in October, helps college students organize marrow donor registry drives. The cells collected in these drives are used to figure out who might be able to donate marrow or blood stem cells to a patient with a life-threatening disease like leukemia. While ethnicity is irrelevant to most medical procedures, marrow and blood stem cell transplants are an exception to this rule.

tuberculosis patient An antibiotic that exploits evolutionary history - October 2011
This month, the World Health Organization announced that tuberculosis cases are on the decline for the first time in at least 20 years. We seem finally to be winning what has been a very long battle. Tuberculosis bacteria have been attacking us since modern humans began to migrate out of Africa around 40,000 years ago. If you enjoy classic literature, you'll be familiar with the cough, fever, and weight loss of consumption (the old-fashioned term for tuberculosis), which used to be a near certain death sentence. That changed when the aminoglycoside antibiotic streptomycin was discovered in 1943.

Juramaia The evidence lines up in early mammal evolution - September 2011
Back in the Jurassic, dinosaurs may have dominated terrestrial ecosystems, but they were not alone. Scurrying around their feet and clinging to the trees above them were the fuzzy ancestors of their successors. When most of the dinosaurs perished, the surviving mammals diversified into the dinosaurs' niches, where they remain today. Last month, scientists reported on the discovery of a fossil mammal from China that would have lived alongside the dinosaurs and that, at 160 million years old, represents one of the earliest mammals known.

robot "Error. Greed does not compute." - May 2011
Swarms of tiny robots have given up their selfish ways and started sharing resources for the greater good. Though this might sound like the plot of a bad summer blockbuster, it is real news. This month, a team of Swiss researchers announced that they've used robots to simulate biological evolution. The simple, mobile robots — each a little larger than a sugar cube — began their lives directionless, meandering aimlessly into walls. But after a few generations of natural selection, their computer programs evolved so that they became efficient foragers, purposefully collecting disks that represent food. None of that is particularly surprising. Scientists have long been able to simulate evolution through computer programs that mimic the processes of genetic inheritance, mutation, recombination, and reproduction. What is noteworthy is that many of these robots eventually evolved to help one another, sacrificing personal success to aid other robots in their group.

whiteflies Gender-biased bacteria throw off an evolutionary balance - April 2011
This month, biologists reported that a bacterial infection has run rampant in populations of a major crop pest in the Southwest. The bacterium (called Rickettsia) is a close relative of the species that causes typhus in humans. Its host is the sweet potato whitefly, a tiny bug that can occur in large enough numbers to form visible clouds. Whiteflies suck the sap from plants and spread crop diseases, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in a single season. In just a few years, the percentage of southwestern whiteflies infected with Rickettsia has skyrocketed from 1% to more than 90%. Unfortunately, this is not the boon for local farmers that it might seem.

Warning Toxic river means rapid evolution for one fish species - March 2011
Though we often think of evolution as occurring at a snail's pace, one fish species is highlighting just how quickly evolution occurs — in the right circumstances. Between 1947 and 1976, General Electric released more than a million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. PCBs can kill fish and seabirds and have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems in humans. PCBs were banned in 1979, but the toxins have remained at high levels in the Hudson because they settle into the sediments on the bottom of the river and don't break down. Now, scientists have discovered that, over the past 60 years, one bottom-feeding fish species, the Atlantic tomcod, has evolved resistance to PCBs.

pitcher Bad at estimating? Blame evolution - February 2011
The next time you are in the kitchen, try this experiment: pick up a box of butter (four sticks) in one hand and a box of saltines (four packets) in the other. Which is heavier? If you said the butter, you are not alone. Most people would identify the box of butter as the heavier object — even though, if you look at the labels, you'll see that they both weigh exactly one pound! This is an example of the size-weight illusion, and it is incredibly common. Read more to see the evolution (and baseball) connection ...

panther Genetic variation helps rescue endangered panthers - December 2010
This fall, biologists announced the apparent success of a last-ditch conservation effort: the Florida panther, once slated for extinction, has been given a second lease on life by the infusion of genetic variation. In the 1900s, this population nosedived because of hunting and habitat loss. By the 1990s, there were fewer than 30 Florida panthers left ...

gorilla Spreading disease on evolutionary timescales - November 2010
If you are trying to stay healthy this cold and flu season, you may find yourself washing your hands frequently and avoiding crowded places like schools and airports. That's because most infectious diseases that we are familiar with are passed from human to human — and the more human germs you come into contact with, the more likely you are to have one make its home in your body. However, on evolutionary timescales, pathogens don't necessarily respect species boundaries ...

Tibetan woman Evolving altitude aptitude - October 2010
If you live in the lowlands, you may have experienced the huffing and puffing that typically accompany a trip to higher altitudes. That's because oxygen levels go down as one goes up. Travelling to Denver from sea level means a 17% decrease in available oxygen. Our bodies compensate for even this small change with faster breathing and a higher heart rate — at least until we acclimate to the thinner atmosphere. And a loftier vacation spot (for example, La Paz, Bolivia at 11,942 feet) could bring on serious altitude sickness with insomnia, nausea, and swelling — but not for everyone ...

bedbug Bed bugs bite back thanks to evolution - September 2010
Bed bugs might sound like an old-fashioned problem, but now they are back — and with a vengeance. Fifty years ago, the blood-sucking pests were nearly eradicated in the United States thanks in part to the use of pesticides like DDT. Today, they are creeping over sheets — and tormenting hapless sleepers — across the country. New York was recently declared America's most bed-bug-infested city ...

cave Making sense of ancient hominin DNA - May 2010
In the last two months, news outlets have been abuzz with the announcement of what many suggested was a new hominin species. In 2008, a 40,000 year old pinky bone from a child was discovered in a Siberian cave. The bone was not enough to identify the species of its possessor, but since both Neanderthals and humans are known to have lived in the area at the time, scientists assumed it belonged to one of these two species. That all changed in March of this year, when German researchers announced that they'd managed to extract DNA from the fossil — and it didn't match up to the known genetic sequences of either humans or Neanderthals ...

bear jaw One small fossil, one giant step for polar bear evolution - April 2010
As the fuzzy and ferocious poster child for climate change issues, polar bears get plenty of press, whether it's coverage of something as simple as the birth of a cub at a zoo or as political as a rejected ban on trading polar bear parts. Last month, however, saw a polar bear story of a different ilk — a story about the bears' evolutionary past that has implications for their evolutionary future. Polar bears, it turns out, may have evolved surprisingly quickly in response to past climactic changes. Here, we'll examine the different lines of evidence that led scientists to this conclusion ...

barefoot running The evolutionary history of jogging - March 2010
If you are health conscious or have been in a sporting goods store lately, you might have heard about a new fitness trend: barefoot running. Enthusiasts hit the pavement (or the grass, or the track) sans shoes entirely or with minimal foot protection — and the trend is catching on. Clubs dedicated to barefoot running have sprung up, devotees crash marathons to run barefoot, and shoe companies are jumping on the bandwagon with shoes that mimic the effect of running barefoot — including some that look like rubber gloves for your feet. Barefoot running may sound like just another fitness fad, soon to go the way of hula-hoops or jazzercise, but this trend has a surprising connection to evolution ...

finch Speciation in real time - February 2010
We often think of speciation as a slow process. All the available evidence supports the idea that different species evolved from common ancestors, and yet, new species don't pop up around us on a daily basis. For many biologists, this implies that speciation happens so slowly that it's hard to observe on human timescales — that we'd need to track a population for millennia or more to actually see it split into two separate species. However, new research suggests that speciation may be easier to observe than we thought. We just need to know where to look ...

mosquito Fighting the evolution of malaria in Cambodia - December 2009
In celebration of the Year of Science's December theme, science and health, this month's news story focuses on how evolution is shaping one of the world's most deadly infectious diseases. Malaria infects more than 250 million people a year and kills almost one million — most of them children. The disease is curable with the right treatment, but this year scientists announced that it may not be curable for long...

Read the whole story to see the evolution connection >>

fossa Oxygen as an evolutionary constraint - November 2009
It's now clear that humans have dramatically changed Earth's atmosphere. More than 30 years ago, scientists realized that our production of chlorofluorocarbons was destroying Earth's protective ozone layer; as we burn fossil fuels for energy, we inadvertently release chemicals like sulfur dioxide, which react with other atmospheric compounds and end up acidifying rainwater; and of course, our production of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, is shifting the makeup of Earth's atmosphere in a direction that actually changes the climate on a global scale. Many of our recent Evo in the News stories have chronicled how human-caused changes in Earth's atmospheric chemistry and environment are affecting the evolution of life on Earth …

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fossa Where did all of Madagascar's species come from? - October 2009
In celebration of the Year of Science's October theme, the geosciences and planet Earth, this month's story focuses on how geography and geology have shaped the evolution of life in one of Earth's most unique places. Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, sits in the Indian Ocean several hundred kilometers off Africa's southeastern coast and provides a home to a remarkable variety of plant and animal species, including the aye aye, fossa, chameleon, and baobab tree. Madagascar has made the news lately because of a military-backed coup, which has threatened conservation efforts …

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fossil bivalves A species' unwelcome inheritance: extinction risk - September 2009
In celebration of the Year of Science's September theme, biodiversity and conservation, this month's story focuses on diversity's nemesis: extinction. The world faces what may be our sixth mass extinction. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate — 100 to 1000 times higher than throughout most of Earth's history. As conservationists struggle to lower this rate, there is concern about where their efforts should be focused. Less than one quarter of the world's 8-14 million species have been described, and only 2.5% of those have been evaluated for extinction risk …

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polar bears Coping with climate change - May 2009
In celebration of the Year of Science's May theme, sustainability and the environment, this month's story deals with one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today: climate change. If you follow news coverage of climate change, you'll be no stranger to the "adapt or die" perspective — the notion that sweeping impacts of climate change are inevitable, and that, to survive, all organisms (whether human, plant, polar bear, or penguin) will be forced to deal with fundamental changes in their environments. But how organisms will handle their new circumstances can be a bit fuzzy.

Read the whole story to see the evolution connection. >>

plant fibers for biofuel Better biofuels through evolution - April 2009
In celebration of the Year of Science's April theme, energy resources, we bring you a story from the frontiers of energy research that depends on evolution. Right now, most of us fill up our gas tanks with fossil fuels, the remains of plants and animals that died many millions of years ago and eventually became petroleum — but, of course, this can't last forever. Petroleum is a limited resource and will eventually run out. To help solve this problem, many scientists, policymakers, business people, and concerned citizens have placed their hopes in biofuels — fuel derived from plant matter that we can grow today.

Read the whole story to see the evolution connection. >>

cichlid Sex, speciation, and fishy physics - March 2009, updated July 2011
If you've been following our monthly updates, you already know that 2009 is the Year of Science. To celebrate this month's theme, physics and technology, Evo in the News reports on a recent story that highlights how an understanding of basic physics can illuminate evolution going on today — in particular how the physics of light influences sexual selection, speciation, and the collapse of biodiversity with human-caused pollution.

Read the whole story to see the evolution connection. >>

Darwin Happy 200th, Darwin! - February 2009
This February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and everybody's invited to the party. Groups around the world — from grade school classrooms, to museums, to churches — will celebrate the science of evolution with public lectures, teach-ins, theatre performances, art exhibits, and plenty of tortoise-shaped cookies. This month's Evo in the News contributes to the celebration by revisiting a topic near and dear to Darwin: the Galapagos finches.

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tigers Tough conservation choices? Ask evolution - December 2008
If your home were on fire, what would you take with you when you fled? The choice could be tough, with childhood toys, photo albums, and important documents all vying for attention. Unfortunately, we face a similarly difficult decision when it comes to conservation. Human activities have triggered the Earth's sixth mass extinction. Nearly 50% of all animal and plant species could disappear within our lifetime. As we race to staunch this rapid loss of biodiversity, we'll need to make choices, but where should we concentrate our efforts?

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HIV origins HIV's not-so-ancient history - November 2008, updated June 2015
Ancient Egyptians described diabetes on a scrap of papyrus 3500 years ago. Two thousand four hundred years ago, Parkinson's was first outlined in a Chinese medical text. And Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Indian civilizations had all recognized malaria long before we had microscopes to observe the parasites that cause the disease. By comparison, HIV is a distinctly modern disease. It was first described in 1981, and drugs to treat it weren't available until 1987. But for how long before its discovery did HIV lurk unnoticed in human populations?

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malaria Ghosts of epidemics past - October 2008
Diseases that pose global health threats — like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis — regularly make the news. Last month, for example, saw reports that HIV infection rates in the US are up, that malaria statistics worldwide are down, and that the distribution of medicines to treat the three diseases had improved. Diseases with such epidemic proportions tend to make us focus on the near future: Regardless of how we wound up in this situation, what can we do now to prevent future infections and deaths?

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Tasmanian devil Evolution down under - September 2008, updated June 2013
If you've seen images of it on the news or in the paper, you won't soon forget it. Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) causes bulging cancerous lumps and lesions to erupt around the face and neck — often causing enough deformation to make seeing or eating difficult. While it may be something of a relief to learn that this fatal disease affects only Tasmanian devils, marsupial carnivores of Tasmania, its impact on that population has been staggering. The disease was first observed by a wildlife photographer in 1996 and, since then, has reduced the total devil population by half — and in some areas, by as much as 90%! Tasmanian devils were recently listed as endangered and could become extinct in the wild in the next few decades …

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octopus Evolution's dating and mating game - May 2008
Long assumed to be loners, at least one octopus is now known to lead a complex love life. Last month, biologists Christine Huffard, Roy Caldwell, and Farnis Boneka reported on one of the first long term studies of octopus mating behavior in the wild. What they found out about the social life of the Indonesian octopus Abdopus aculeatus is the stuff of daytime television: jealousy, brawls, betrayal, sneaking around behind one another's backs — if they had backs, that is — and, a soap-opera favorite, the open-ended question of paternity …

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MRSA Superbug, super-fast evolution - April 2008
Fascination with tiny microbes bearing long, difficult-to-pronounce names is often reserved for biology classrooms — unless of course the bug in question threatens human health. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) now contributes to more US deaths than does HIV, and as its threat level has risen, so has the attention lavished on it by the media. At this point, almost any move the bug makes is likely to show up in your local paper …

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elephant shrew The new shrew that's not - March 2008
Not a shrew, that is. If you flipped through the newspaper's Science and Technology section last month, you might have spotted this adorable imposter: big eyes, dainty feet, and a long, flexible snout resembling an anteater's or an elephant's. Formally known as Rhynchocyon udzungwensis, the giant elephant shrew made the news because it is fuzzy, photogenic, and new to science. While thousands of insect species are discovered each year, mammal species not yet in the scientific record (especially ones the size of a hefty squirrel, like R. udzungwensis) are a rarity. Most elephant shrew species were first described in the 1800s by scientists who classified them as shrews because of obvious physical similarities. But recent genetic evidence has confirmed that elephant shrews are not shrews at all …

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chromosomes Evolution in the fast lane? - February 2008
The question of whether we, as a species, are still evolving, sometimes inspires visions of a new-and-improved Homo sapiens, complete with super-sized brain, disease-resistance, and the ability to withstand the pollutants and toxins common in a techno-centric future. While science fiction writers have come up with imaginative and entertaining answers to the question of how humans might be evolving, the responses of the scientific community have been more staid. Perhaps, they've suggested, some genes for withstanding epidemic disease are currently on the rise. However, with the improved genetic sequencing technologies that have come online in the last decade, many biologists are now prepared to offer more specific hypotheses as to how species are changing …

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Adenovirus Evolution from a virus's view - December 2007
The new disease making the rounds this winter sounds like a Steven Spielberg movie in the making: a common cold virus, which spreads via casual contact, mutates into a virulent form that hospitalizes and sometimes kills its victims. Touted last month as the "killer cold," Adenovirus-14 is far from fantasy, but neither is it scary enough to make a blockbuster …

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DNA Genealogy enthusiasts mine DNA for clues to evolutionary history - November 2007
If you've ever sat down with a great aunt to reconstruct your family history, wondered if you might be related to Genghis Khan, or tried to calculate what portion of your genes come from that rowdy great-grandparent that your dad never wants to talk about, you might be tempted to try out the latest in genealogy research: DNA. Last month saw the launch of GeneTree.com, a business combining social networking with genetic testing. For a fee, GeneTree will use the DNA in a sample of your cheek cells (collected with a special mouthwash) to "discover your deepest ancestral roots." With advances in DNA technology, some genetic tests are relatively easy to perform, and GeneTree joins more than 20 other companies aiming to unravel ancestry via DNA tests. But what are the limits of these tests? An evolutionary perspective helps reveal whether these companies can deliver on their promises.

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National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Another perspective on cancer: Evolution within - October 2007
This month, pink products — from sneakers to vacuum cleaners — will pop up on store shelves. Even Campbell's Soup will shed its tomato red label in favor of pearly pink. Whatever your opinion on the pink campaign to raise awareness of and research dollars for breast cancer, the cause is unlikely to escape your notice during October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Since nearly 200,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone, funding for research has the potential to improve the quality of life and survival odds for many millions of people. But despite increased attention and funding, the cure for this and other cancers has remained notoriously elusive.

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hominid skull When it comes to evolution, headlines often get it wrong - September 2007
"Fossils challenge old evolution theory," proclaimed Fox News, while the Salt Lake Tribune, bragged that "University scientists defy evolution view!" From the headlines trumpeted in some media outlets, one might imagine evolution as a theory in crisis — publishers struggling to rewrite textbook chapters before print deadlines, biologists running from their labs, tearing their hair. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Last month, when scientists published a description of newly discovered hominid fossils and suggested that they might prompt a minor revision of the human family tree, biologists and paleoanthropologists considered the additional evidence with interest and the authors' interpretation with a healthy skepticism typical of science.

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cheetahs Cheating cheetahs prosper - July 2007
Philandering males, sneaking around behind their partners' backs or openly canoodling, are a stock character on Animal Planet. Male lions, male chimps, and male elephant seals (along with many others) play the Casanovas, pairing up with multiple females. But now researchers have revealed that cheetahs buck this sexual stereotype. According to the May 2007 study, female cheetahs seem to be at least as promiscuous as their male counterparts. Females frequently mate with several different males while they are fertile and are then likely to bear a single litter of cubs fathered by multiple males — making many of the cubs within a single litter only half-siblings …

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grizzly Evolving conservation strategies - June 2007
Wolves, grizzlies, and other endangered species dodged a bullet last month when the Department of the Interior briefly considered a new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Act protects species that are at risk of going extinct throughout a significant portion of their range. This range has always included areas where the species historically lived (even if they've since been driven out). However, the interpretation proposed last month would have changed that, protecting a species only over the range in which it currently lives …

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chimp Seeing the tree for the twigs - May 2007
When humans consider evolutionary history, we usually view the tree of life from the vantage point of our own tiny twig. We trace the hominid branch seven million years back in time — passing long-lost relatives along the way (our Neanderthal cousins, Great Aunt Lucy...) — until we reach the ancestor linking us with other primates and marvel, "Look how far we've come!" But just how impressive is our own evolution into a bipedal, big-brained, blabbering hominid?

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dairy Got lactase? - April 2007
In the US and many other countries, we've certainly "got milk," but not everyone can enjoy it. For around 10% of Americans, 10% of Africa's Tutsi tribe, 50% of Spanish and French people, and 99% of Chinese, a tall cold glass of milk means an upset stomach and other unpleasant digestive side effects. In fact, most adults in the world are lactose intolerant and cannot digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk. And yet, regardless of our ancestry, most of us began our lives happily drinking milk from a bottle or breast — so what happened in the intervening time?

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an antibody and HIV A chink in HIV's evolutionary armor - March 2007
Since it made the evolutionary leap to humans from chimpanzees, HIV/AIDS has infected around 1% of the global population and in 2005 alone, killed almost three million people. Much of HIV's continued spread can be traced to its evasion of both the human immune system and our vaccines. Now that could be changing. Last month, a team of researchers led by Peter Kwong of the National Institutes of Health revealed the details of a molecular dance between the virus and its human host cells that could pave the way for a long-awaited vaccine.

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corn The other green (r)evolution - February 2007
These days, corn seems to be going high tech, as the U.S. and other countries shift their attention to corn-based ethanol fuels in response to dwindling oil supplies. And the corn market is feeling this demand for the "fuel of the future": in recent months, corn prices have skyrocketed, in Mexico the cost of tortillas has soared, and many U.S. farmers have planned to invest more of their fields in corn, passing up soybeans, wheat, and cotton. So is corn the next new "green" technology?

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HIV Evolutionary evidence takes the stand - January 2007, updated August 2007
Despite overwhelming evidence attesting to their innocence, last month six medical workers were sentenced to death in a Libyan trial. The crime with which the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor are charged is indeed horrifying.

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cricket Quick evolution leads to quiet crickets - December 2006, updated June 2008 and June 2011
Attack of the flesh-eating parasitoid maggots!! Mutant mute crickets run rampant in tropical paradise!! The headlines may sound like a trailer for a cheap horror flick — but in fact, these sensationalist sound bites accurately describe the situation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The "flesh-eating parasitoid maggots" are the offspring of the fly, Ormia ochracea, which invaded Hawaii from North America, and the mutant crickets are the flies' would-be victims.

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reef Where species come from - November 2006
Cries of "Save the rainforest! Save the coral reefs!" may rally the conservation movement — but what about the arctic tundra, or the semiarid desert? Are those ecosystems unthreatened? Far from it; ecosystems all around the world and at every latitude are endangered in some way by human activity. So why do rainforests and reefs get so much attention?

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trap-jaw ant Quick bites and quirky adaptations - October 2006
Lions and great white sharks may boast the most famous jaws in the animal kingdom — but theirs are nowhere near the fastest. In August 2006, biologists Sheila Patek, Andy Suarez, and colleagues awarded that honor to Odontomachus bauri, a tiny trap-jaw ant native to Central and South America, whose mandibles (or jaws) can snap shut at a remarkable 145 miles per hour! That rapid-fire bite is quick enough to decapitate a soldier termite before it launches its own defense …

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blue mussels Musseling in on evolution - September 2006
Evolution is a slow process through which species gradually adapt to their environments, right? Well perhaps sometimes, but not for the blue mussel. In August of 2006, Aaren Freeman and James Byers of the University of New Hampshire announced that the blue mussel has evolved defenses against a new invasive predator in just 15 years …

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T. rex More than morphology - August 2006
A six-ton carnivore with teeth the size of bananas is bound to make the news — even if that animal has been extinct for 65 million years. The recent spate of T. rex discoveries that have made headlines confirms this species' star status. In June 2006, T. rex was reported to have had much better vision than previously thought — perhaps 13 times sharper than human vision! In July, a team of researchers estimated that T. rex had an average body temperature just 7 or 8° F lower than our own mammalian temperature …

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On the left is a photo of Boulder Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana, taken in July of 1932.  On the right is a photo taken at the same spot in July of 1988.  The glacier is gone. Warming to evolution - July 2006, updated July 2008
Global warming is, quite literally, a hot topic. Though the mechanism of global warming — temperature rise due to humans' production of heat-trapping greenhouse gases — may not be big news, the projected impact of global warming often makes headlines …

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rain forest Hotspots for evolution - June 2006
Ever wonder why the Amazon is loaded with different species while the Antarctic boasts just a few? Well, so did New Zealand biologists Shane Wright, Jeanette Keeling, and Len Gillman — and the answer they discovered would be no surprise to any sun-worshipping tourist …

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Tiktaalik What has the head of a crocodile and the gills of a fish? - May 2006
Tiktaalik, of course. Pronounced tik-TAA-lik, this 375 million year old fossil splashed across headlines as soon as its discovery was announced in April of 2006. Unearthed in arctic Canada by a team of researchers led by Neil Shubin, Edward Daeschler, and Farish Jenkins, Tiktaalik is technically a fish, complete with scales and gills — but it has the flattened head of a crocodile and unusual fins …

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kakapo Conserving the kakapo - April 2006
When the kakapo, a critically endangered parrot, makes the papers, it's generally not good news. In 1995, just 51 of these large flightless birds waddled around the forests of island sanctuaries in their native New Zealand. The kakapo used to be more widespread, but having evolved with few natural predators on the islands, the birds were poorly adapted for the modern world — and the rat and stoat invasions that came along with it …

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DNA fingerprinting Evolution at the scene of the crime - March 2006
The tests confirm, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Roger Keith Coleman did it, but Alan Crotzer did not. In 1992, Coleman was executed for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. In 1981, Crotzer was sentenced to 130 years in prison for a robbery and pair of rapes. Though the crimes themselves are old, judgments long since rendered, and punishments already meted out, for many observers, the actual guilt or innocence of these two defendants for two different crimes was only just settled by an increasingly important test …

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zebrafish A fish of a different color - February 2006
The zebrafish, a small but flashy aquarium pet, may seem like an unlikely informant on questions of human genetics — yet its genome could hold the keys to understanding many diseases and, surprisingly, the genes underlying human skin color. In December 2005, a cancer research team headed by Keith Cheng at Penn State University announced that their studies of the mutant "golden" zebrafish had taken an unexpected turn: they had discovered a single human gene that accounts for about 30% of the difference in skin color between African and European descendents …

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bats and SARS Tracking SARS back to its source - January 2006, updated July 2013
The previously unknown SARS virus generated widespread panic in 2002 and 2003 when the airborne germ caused 774 deaths and more than 8000 cases of illness. But where did this mystery virus come from? Scientists immediately suspected that it had jumped to humans from some other organism. In May of 2003, attention focused in on cat-like mammals called civets. Infected civets were discovered at a live animal market in southern China (where they are occasionally eaten). However, since further searches failed to turn up more tainted civets, scientists concluded that they were not the original source of SARS and continued their quest …

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bird flu Evolution and the avian flu - November/December 2005
The warnings are dire. The economic cost for developed countries alone is estimated at 550 billion dollars, and the projected worldwide death toll ranges between 2 million and 150 million people. The very real specter behind these warnings is, of course, avian flu. As the virus spreads through bird populations, governments have heeded the warnings of health officials and begun to cull infected flocks. More than 150 million birds have been killed so far …

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wild mustard "Superweed" discovered in Britain? - October 2005
Environmentalists raised an outcry when the British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology announced the discovery of what has been termed a "superweed" in July of 2005. The single wild mustard plant achieved superweed status in the minds of some when it proved resistant to a powerful weed killer. Scientists discovered the plant in a field that had been used in trials of genetically-modified (GM) oilseed rape, a group of plants which includes those used to produce canola oil. Environmental groups warn that this discovery augurs serious agricultural and environmental repercussions …

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chicken Livestock kick a drug habit - September 2005, updated June 2014, July 2015
"Just say no to drugs" was the message sent to chicken farmers in July of 2005 when the FDA banned the use of the antibiotic Baytril in poultry production. Citing concerns for human health, the FDA will no longer allow poultry producers to give their chickens, turkeys, and ducks Baytril-laced water …

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