Author: Peter Sarkies

Painting pictures of genomes

Dr Peter Sarkies explains how network-based visualisation has revealed new insights into a genome feature known as a transposable element.

When we think of a scientific discovery, we typically imagine a “eureka” moment, in which someone in a white coat glimpses the result of an experiment and in one stroke, solves one of life’s major questions. However, it is important to realise that a key aspect of scientific progress involves the development of new tools that help make previously insoluble research questions accessible. One important example of this is tools that help scientists to see better. We’re all familiar with many of these tools and how they were instrumental in biology – from the microscope that enabled cells to be seen for the first time, through to more recent tools such as electron microscopy that made visible the fine inner structure of the cell, and X-ray crystallography enabling scientists to work out the position of each atom in a protein. What might be a little less obvious is how important more abstract modes of visualisation can be in helping scientists to make progress in understanding research questions. (more…)

Exploring the evolutionary treadmill of genome defence

Dr Peter Sarkies looks at how evolution can quickly come up with new mechanisms to fight infection by adapting existing processes rather than inventing new ones.

It’s January and perhaps you’ve been hitting the treadmill in the gym in an enthusiastic bid to make good that New Year’s resolution to do more exercise.  To a primitive human, it’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous contraption – expending huge amounts of energy simply to stay in exactly the same place; but remarkably, this feature of a treadmill is very similar to some aspects of evolution.

The examples of evolution that are most familiar to people involve organisms adapting to their environment, with the long neck of the giraffe perfectly suited to reaching the best leaves as a famous example.  Probably the most active type of evolution by natural selection occurs in response to conflicts between organisms.  A good example of this is the response of species, like humans, to infection by pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Humans are engaged in a constant race to evolve new mechanisms to fight infection, because the pathogens themselves are able to rapidly adapt to become resistant to each new strategy that the host comes up with.


Why study evolution? 

Dr Peter Sarkies explains how information hidden in the evolutionary history of life on Earth has helped illuminate new insights into gene regulation.

In today’s challenging funding environment, studying evolution – the long-term history of life on earth – might seem somewhat frivolous. How could studying evolution contribute to pressing issues such as human disease? Responding to this, biologists often use a famous quotation from Theodosius Dobzhansky:

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Whilst this quotation certainly sounds impressive, it’s by no means obvious exactly what Dobzhansky meant, let alone how it helps explain why the study of evolution is important.  To understand its significance, we need to look at the statement in a little more depth. (more…)