I recently had a three-way phone conversation with Swedish deep evolution investigators Charles Kurland and Ajith Harish about their phylogenomic Tree of Life (ToL) based on protein structure, which shows that we are descended from a “complex” ancestor — MRUCA (most recent universal common ancestor) — not a simple bacteria. Kurland and Harish think a ToL paradigm shift may be in order. What’s more, Kurland and Harish figure that MRUCA was not the first ancestor, but represents complex survivors of a now-extinct biosphere.
There has been a vigorous and somewhat sharp response to the Charles Kurland and Ajith Harish Tree of Life interview, reminiscent of the email chain circulated by theoretical biologist Stan Salthe following Jerry Fodor’s article in the London Review of Books, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings.” I thought it important to share some of the responses to the Kurland and Harish interview, particularly because comments are no longer attached to Huffington Post stories, except on the HP Facebook page. More.
Speaking of Ford Doolittle— Because Chuck Kurland during our interview said that Doolittle in a 1999 Science magazine article exaggerated the extent to which horizontal gene transfer is a factor in evolution, and then identified Doolitte as a former postdoc of Carl Woese – Doolittle responded with a slur in an email to me, calling Kurland the “Donald Trump of molecular evolution.” (That, by the way, was prior to Trump’s speech to Congress and the Dow surging over 21,000.)
SUPERFAMILY father Julian Gough, a bioinformaticist at MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge whose database Kurland and Harish relied on to build their ToL, agrees that HGT is overblown. Gough wrote to me:
“I agree strongly with some of their [Kurland & Harish] assertions, such as that horizontal gene transfer has been overblown by some segments of the scientific community (because it’s an engaging story and a good excuse for our shortcomings in untangling evolution). . . . I think you capture in your interview something very important, that ‘it’s important that science not become dogma’ and these guys are calling everyone out on some stuff that really has been insufficiently challenged. So I am really pleased that as a journalist you are helping to air the views.”
This sounds like a serious, if testy, discussion. We were thinking there’d be pushback but maybe keeping trolls off the HP page proper, as noted above, is keeping the discussion fruitful.
It seems like horizontal gene transfer is taking its place in the world of discussible explanations in evolution. Win some, lose some.
See also: Common ancestry: Bioinformaticist Julian Gough on the SUPERFAMILY database on proteins in genomes
Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more
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