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Evolutionary research featured in Nature

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Evolutionary research featured in Nature

Research by Professor Paul Rainey shedding new light on the origins and genetics of adaptive traits is the cover story in the latest edition of the prestigious science journal Nature.

A paper by Professor Rainey’s team from the New Zealand Institute of Advanced Study at Albany, entitled Experimental Evolution of Bet Hedging, investigates the way organisms hedge their bets when faced with an uncertain, changing environment, by switching randomly between forms suited to different environments. Professor Rainey’s team included Hubertus Beaumont, Jenna Gallie, Christian Kost and Gayle Ferguson.

The paper reveals how this strategy evolves, shedding light on the origins and genetics of adaptive traits.

Professor Rainey and his team grew experimental bacterial populations under fluctuating conditions that favoured the evolution of new types.

“Although bet hedging is found in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans, direct evidence for an adaptive origin of this behaviour is lacking,” Professor Rainey says. “Here we report the evolution of bet hedging in experimental bacterial populations.”

Initially, the bacteria responded as expected, with fixed types adapted to each new environment, but eventually some cells evolved the capacity to pre-empt the environmental change through a bet hedging strategy. The team identified nine mutations distinguishing bet hedgers from their ancestors.

Professor Rainey says the rapid and repeatable evolution of bet hedging in this study suggests that it could have been among life’s earliest adaptations to uncertainty.

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“These findings capture the adaptive evolution of bet hedging in the simplest of organisms, and suggest that risk-spreading strategies may have been among the earliest evolutionary solutions to life in fluctuating environments,” he says.

Professor Rainey is Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at the institute and director of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution. He is also visiting professor at Stanford University in California, co-director of the Hopkins Microbiology Course, and senior adjunct researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology. He joined Massey in 2007 and was elected to the Academy of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

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