Evolution research wins kudos as 'Breakthrough of the Year'

David Kingsley, Modified from Cuvier (1829)

A single gene controlled the loss of bony plates (in red) when sticklebacks evolved from ocean (top) to freshwater (bottom) varieties.

When the editors at Science looked back over the research the magazine covered in 2005, they decided that several high-impact discoveries made evolution stand out as the "Breakthrough of the Year." Among the research highlighted is work by David Kingsley, PhD, professor of developmental biology, who studies the evolutionary process in a diverse group of fish called the stickleback.

In the annual roundup of breakthroughs in the Dec. 23 issue, Science points out that evolution is the underpinning of all biological research. "Today evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for granted," the editors wrote.

Kingsley's highlighted work was published in the journal's March 25 issue, when he reported that 15 isolated freshwater stickleback populations all lost their bony armor through mutations in the same gene. This was among the first times that scientists had shown the same genetic change was responsible for an evolutionary adaptation in disparate populations.

"Our work shows that even major morphological changes are controlled by relatively simple mechanisms," Kingsley said.

Many researchers have previously shown evolution in biochemical processes, such as antibiotic resistance. But some evolution critics had argued that it would be impossible to evolve large morphological changes in natural populations. "That is obviously false," said Kingsley, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "Sticklebacks with major changes in skeletal armor and fin structures are thriving in natural environments. And the major differences between forms can now be traced to particular genes."

Sticklebacks evolved from a relatively uniform marine population into today's broad spectrum of shapes and sizes when the last Ice Age ended roughly 10,000 years ago. Because ocean fish quickly evolved into such distinct populations when they colonized new freshwater lakes and streams, they are ideal models for understanding how animals adapt to their unique environments.

The Dec. 23 issue of Science highlighted several additional advances in evolutionary research, saying, "2005 stands out as a banner year for uncovering the intricacies of how evolution actually proceeds." Among the featured advances are the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome and of the 1918 avian bird flu genome and multiple studies showing how populations divide into distinct species.

The editors say that in addition to being interesting work, advances in evolutionary biology can directly aid human health by helping researchers understand how flu spreads or aiding in the discovery of disease-related genes.