Yeast, evolution, and medicine

In the past I often said that the importance of evolutionary biology is not measurable in the hard currency of human welfare—that evolution’s value was not in making us richer or healthier, but in giving us the true story of how we got here and when, and who we’re related to.  I’ve tempered that opinion over the years as I’ve become aware of the real contributions evolutionary biology has made to medicine (see for example my exchange with David Hillis).

In today’s New York Times, Carl Zimmer gives further evidence of how evolution is advancing medicine.  Zimmer tells the story of Ed Marcotte at the University of Texas, and how his work on yeast, combined with the concept of deep homology between yeast and human genes, has enormous promise for medicine—everything from cancer to genetic defects.   It involves going back and forth between species, with the iterations finding ever more genes that might be involved in human diseases; and it all rests on the proposition that genes in humans that do one thing might be evolutionarily related to genes in other species that do different things. (This, of course, is one of the observations that has been used to refute Intelligent Design’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”)

It’s way cool.


  1. cranium
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Cornelius Hunter on ‘Darwin’s God’ via ‘Uncommon Descent’ has of course weighed in with his version of what the yeast investigations mean.
    You’ll already know his interpretation.

  2. Posted April 26, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    In a more recent paper (Nature, Feb 2009) S. Carroll et al write: “The
    detection of deep homologies offers more than new glimpses of evolutionary
    history, however. Such homologies provide a profound insight
    into the evolutionary process. Studies of deep homology are showing that
    new structures need not arise from scratch, genetically speaking, but can
    evolve by deploying regulatory circuits that were first established in early animals. But herein lies a challenge for the next generation of biologists: if the mechanisms behind the formation of diverse organs are ancient and highly conserved, then parallel evolution must be considered a fact of life in the phylogenetic history of animals”. Here they quote Gould.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Nice article. You do realize that Neil Shubin had a mention there 🙂

  4. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Regardless of what the uncommon descent liars may say, it is very important to point out to the public that evolution is not just an abstract philosophical construct and it has real life applications.
    And to fight this kind of propaganda:,8599,1942483,00.html/

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      Unless drastic improvements in research strategies, consequent with unforeseen transcriptional, translational and gene organization data, your optimism regarding “real life apps” could take longish. After 10 years of the Human Genome project, the contribution to “new medical apps” of new genetic data” is zilch, well almoat. Lets work

  5. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    That doesn’t mean that evolutionary biology as a whole has no application. You can find uses for evolution in environmental sciences, agriculture, medicine, even criminal justice.
    The main article in this post is just one example.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, you are right, I did not say that….

  6. Carol O
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    “It all rests on the proposition that genes in humans that do one thing might be evolutionarily related to genes in other species that do different things. (This, of course, is one of the observations that has been used to refute Intelligent Design’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”)”

    How probable is it that complex genes came out from nowhere? Or is a result of a series of accidents? I’d really be interested in a blog post that explains how EVOLUTION can explain the origin of life in a rational manner.

    I’m no genius but I can at least think, and the Truth Project website seems way more truthful than evolution being true.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      Oh, dear Lord, an intelligent design person. Okay, Carol, since you can think, and have decided that evolution isn’t true, perhaps you can start by explaining away the fossil evidence showing change within a lineage, the evolution of new species, and the existence of transitional forms like “mammal-like reptiles”?

      Oh, and if there’s no evolution, how come humans carry lots of dead genes in their genomes that are nonfunctional but are function in our relatives?

      We’re waiting. . . .

      • Carol O
        Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        I’m a 14-year old 8th grader who found this blog from a Stevenson blog. Not a scientist. So, the evidence for evolution comes from dead/nonfunctional genes present in humans that are functional in other organisms? Still too vague.

        I was hoping for a better answer to my query – that of a blog post here that explains how EVOLUTION can explain the origin of life in a rational manner.

        Between this blog and the opposite view in the Truth Project website, why should I believe this blog?

        • cranium
          Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

          Dear Carol Concern Troll, because if you read widely of the available evidence, factual evidence, not distorted, misrepresented or cherry-picked evidence; you will very quickly find that the evidence for evolution outweighs that of creationism by a factor of about eleventy squillion. The only pre-requisite is, make sure you apply a rational mind and a logical approach.

          • MadScientist
            Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:22 am | Permalink

            Concern troll also can’t tell the difference between evolution and the start of life (chemical abiogenesis). There is the usual unsupported assumption that life was created as is by a magical fairy and any explanation of the diversity of species must therefore be an explanation of the very beginning – and somehow “goddidit” is seen as an answer. Truly bizarre; it’s so sad that these antedeluvian superstitions persist.

        • Bryan
          Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          Hi Carol! I think you might enjoy reading Jerry’s book “Why Evolution is True”. You don’t have to buy it – just check it out from your local library and see what you think!

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      Complex genes didn’t come from nowhere, they came from different, possibly (and ultimately) simpler genes. At some point in the distant past, the first gene evolved from a related chemical which we probably wouldn’t have called a gene had we seen it today. The “some fairy did it” story is laughable at best – it explains nothing about the origins of life and even less about the origins of your magic fairy.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Carol O wants a comment in a blog post to explain how evolution works. I somehow doubt she would go to an engineering website and say “I don’t believe that skyscrapers can be constructed by people — explain to me in 120 words how that works.”

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted April 27, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        Just simply tell her “It works well, unlike creationism which doesn’t work at all for anything”.

  7. Carol O
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Oh I see. This is a blog that sells books. Nice advertising. I thought I had specific questions already but no one was giving specific answers. Thanks anyway. I’m sleepy and I have school tomorrow.

    • Thomas Ferraro
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:45 am | Permalink


      No one can say for sure how life began. The Wikipedia article on abiogenesis or the Exploring Origins site are good starting places if you are beginner on the topic. (Did you know that fatty acids will spontaneously form cells, no designer needed?)

      But the article you are commenting on is not about the origin of life — it is about the similarities between genes that are found in both humans and yeast. Read the article to which Jerry is referring, it’s interesting .

      After you have read that, ask yourself a simple yes-or-no question: is evidence that yeast and humans have a common ancestor evidence of evolution? If the answer is yes, then there is so much evidence for evolution, the answer to the question of whether evolution is true is a blindingly obvious yes. If your answer is no, then no one here or any where else is ever going to convince you, so you might as well save a lot of time and give up trying to find the argument that will convince you.

      Now stop reading blog comments and get ready for school…

    • Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:36 am | Permalink

      Er, no. Please read a bit more carefully.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      And of course the Truth Project website you linked to doesn’t sell anythingexcept for $40 DVDs. (I’ll note that Jerry’s book costs less than half that at Amazon.)

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        Our policy is that if you attack evolution on this website, you have to have at least the evidence that is presented in my book (and no, you don’t have to buy the book, just know about evoluton) and be able to defend your views. You expect us to “defend evoluton” but you yourself ignore the fossil record. Come back here when you’ve learned something.

  8. Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Note that the NY Times article mentioned part of what was learned by studying flies. It kind of reminds me of this:

    • KP
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes, those irritating fruit fly researchers… Clearly Sarah will knock some common sense into ’em.

  9. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    There are very interesting clues on the origin of life. In alkaline vents, for example. But I wouldn’t believe our fake 14 year old has any interest in learning anything.

  10. Posted April 27, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Love the idea of this
    Highly recommend watching this pod cast before it ends.

  11. Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Troll ? Atheist ? It is always the same Lord of the Flies role playing playground comments no matter which quasi religious / atheist forum – blog Different Cross Same Nails.

  12. Posted April 29, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    t’s a well known fact that the same genes are used over and over again
    in many species. The genes are a more basic unit than the organism. The
    important question is not “how did organisms evolve” the important
    question is “where did genes come from?” Organisms are simply
    biochemical machines that are built by genes. These biochemical machines
    are constructed of basic functional units called proteins. Now the
    genome, with the assistance of the protein synthetic apparatus (which it
    also manufactures) can produce just about any protein known. Therefore,
    we must assume that with the correct information, it can likewise
    construct any conceivable biochemical machine. In other words, it
    appears to have unlimited potential. Now when I refer to the genome, I
    guess I more correctly mean “the pool of DNA available”. This DNA is
    apparently shared, exchanged, modified and assembled into various
    organisms with varying structures and forms, but the basic processes are
    pretty much the same in each and every cell. Either the genome can
    generate new information as needed in response to its needs, or new
    information is introduced from outside in the form of new DNA.
    Accidental coding errors are just that, errors, and contribute nothing
    to the generation of new and useful information. I believe that the
    genome has the ability to adapt to any conditions and that it controls
    its own destiny with the potential that is built into it. There is no
    possibility that the genome created itself from nothing by taking
    advantage of coding errors and other mutations. Computer programs don’t
    write themselves and meaning does not create itself. There is a deeper
    level of understanding that we are just beginning to acknowledge, let
    alone, comprehend.

    • Notagod
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Ah yes, is this cell 56664398? Yes, it is? Well yes, we need you to start production of synapses. You’ll need to work up a new formula as the old one isn’t working properly. Yes that is correct, we need a mass infusion of synapses to replace some that have malfunctioned. All righty then, send them as quickly as possible to the staging area charliewagner in section 17.

      Is that sort of the way you envision it?

  13. Posted April 29, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    From the paper

    “The conserved gene systems revealed by the plant-vertebrate phenologs illustrate a more ancient homology than the ‘deep homology’ of metazoans that is currently a focus of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo).”

    So where did the gene systems come from?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2010 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      They evolved from earlier systems.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a tough audience if ever there was one, is swayed by the piece. So check it […]

  2. […] an expert take on this deep homology concept, go to “Why Evolution is […]

  3. […] his blog, Why Evolution is True, Coyne said that the story and the research have pushed him to become more accepting of the idea […]

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