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Evolution institute named for pioneering UW-Madison geneticist

November 19, 2009 By David Tenenbaum

A few days before the 150th anniversary of the “Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin’s epochal book on evolution, plans for a new evolution institute moved closer to final approval at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

On Nov. 18, the College of Letters & Science Academic Planning Council unanimously approved the J.F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution, following unanimous approval from a similar body in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The final hurdle will occur when the institute is discussed by the University Academic Planning Council at a meeting scheduled for December.

Just as the principle of descent from common ancestry unites the many branches of biology, from the study of individual genes to studies of ecosystems, the evolution institute will knit together more than 70 faculty members strewn across seven colleges on campus, says David Baum, professor of botany and leader of the Evolution Coordinating Committee, which proposed the new institute.

UW-Madison is already a powerhouse in biology, Baum notes, but “we need the institute because evolutionary biology has become such an important discipline. It’s not appropriate to have a campus of this stature without a department of evolutionary biology, without a graduate program in evolutionary biology and with no other unit focused on evolutionary research and education. Our emphasis on biology is scattered, and we need something that brings people together across all the colleges.”

The institute will be named for James F. Crow, professor emeritus of genetics, who pioneered mathematical approaches to population genetics and molecular evolution more than a half century ago.

Although evolution is often portrayed as “just” a theory, it has become the organizing principle by which scientists make sense of the forms, structures and relationships of organisms on Earth. Evolution is a critical tool in broad use among the many realms of biology, Baum says. “There is an increasing appreciation for the ways in which pathogens and pests evolve, so we need to understand evolution in order to stop, control or respond appropriately. That is what we call applied evolution, which will be one important focus of the institute.”

Applied evolution can be used to study social problems such as global warming, extinctions of species, invasions of alien species, and threats to livestock and crops. For example, Carol Lee, an associate professor of zoology at UW–Madison’s Center of Rapid Evolution, is using evolutionary approaches to study how organisms have invaded the Great Lakes. Most of these invaders came from distant and distinct habitats, she says, and they are adapting to their new circumstances. “Over the last 10 years, people have started discovering that the populations that successfully invade are often different from their ancestors because they have evolved to survive in novel environments.”

A saltwater animal that invades the Great Lakes must be able to survive in fresh water, and natural selection will favor genes that allow this survival, Lee says. “We can go into the genome and discover which traits are evolving most intensely, and that will reveal the factors that limit their survival. These discoveries may allow us to find their Achilles’ heel that could eventually lead to more effective methods for controlling destructive invaders.”

Evolution is playing a key role in human disease, Baum adds, noting that the development of resistance to antibiotics is a clear example of evolution in action. He adds that if HIV, the cause of AIDS, “does not evolve to evade drugs and the immune system, it would not kill patients.”

The genetic roots of disease continue to be unraveled, says Bret Payseur, an assistant professor of medical genetics at UW–Madison. “One popular strategy for identifying genes that cause disease is to compare disease status and DNA markers in large groups of people. DNA markers that correlate with disease can point to important genes.”

Like many other areas in genetics, this approach rests on discoveries by the new institute’s namesake, Payseur says. “Ultimately, understanding inherited variation in disease requires understanding variation in DNA, the primary goal of the field of population genetics. And in that field, Jim Crow is a pioneer.”

Jim Crow’s continuing legacy

Crow was a logical namesake for the Institute for the Study of Evolution for his long-term commitment to teaching and research at UW–Madison, says Payseur. “Jim’s research has made several lasting contributions to population genetics, through an elegant combination of theory and lab work. Jim is one of the most notable living theoreticians in population genetics, he helped work out the mathematical theory for the rules that govern variations in natural populations.”

Crow also delighted in teaching large, introductory classes on genetics, and shouldered his share of institutional duties while chairing the Department of Medical Genetics for five years and the Laboratory of Genetics for eight years.

“I’m pleased and rather surprised,” says Crow, with characteristic humor. “Usually these things are named after a person who has died, but I am not going to take the hint.”

Although Crow was known for his mathematical approach, “I was only a mediocre mathematician,” he says. “I had some very good mathematicians as students. When we wrote things together, they did the heavy mathematical lifting and I posed the problems and did the theory.”

Crow’s main interest was the impact of mutations on populations, but he and his 50-plus graduate students and postdoctoral students ranged widely. “The usual advice to a young professor is to pick something and stick with it,” he says. “I did the opposite; it made for a more interesting life, but it’s a risky approach.”

Motoo Kimura, one early graduate student, arrived from Japan shortly after Crow became an assistant professor at UW–Madison in 1948. Kimura, who became a noted geneticist in his own right, developed the concept of “neutral evolution,” that most changes in DNA are not subject to natural selection. This analysis became the basis for the “molecular clock,” which can determine when two species last shared a common ancestor, one measure of how strongly they are related.

Discoveries that Crow made with other graduate students focused on “transposable elements,” genes that “jump” about in the chromosomes, and “selfish genes,” which evade the normal laws of inheritance by de-activating their alternative gene.

A conversation with Crow keeps returning to his many students. “When I think about satisfaction, almost No. 1 is the graduate students,” he says. “I tried to accept students who were smarter than I was, and most of the time I succeeded. For the really good ones, my role has been sympathetic listener, rather than guide.”

The study of genetics and evolution has exploded in the past few decades, and Crow says he sometimes thinks it might be nice to start over. “In a sense, I have been replaced by computers and DNA chemistry. It’s very exciting now, but I think the individualism has been lost. So much is done now by teams, and I like to work individually, or with one or two students.”

Crow, who began studying genetics and evolution before the structure of DNA was even known, says the data glut of recent years has caused a fundamental shift in genetics. “We used to have awfully good theory and not much data. Now we have so much data and not enough theory.”