A paper appeared recently in Science that reminded me of one of my favorite toys when I was a kid — a rolling-ball maze. Over the years I had a few different varieties, including two- and three-dimensional ones. The basic gist is that a person has to twist and turn the toy to roll a ball through a plastic, transparent maze from the entrance to the exit. Of course there are a lot of dead ends and blind alleys, so it’s pretty tricky, at least at first. Once you learn the path, it becomes trivial.
Näsvall et al. (2012) do the same with a protein, manipulating experimental conditions to roll it through dead ends and have it come out in the place they want. Although the printed paper itself and an accompanying commentary by Elizabeth Pennisi paint the results as an advance in understanding evolution, that’s so only if evolution has eyes and a mind like a kid solving a maze. The investigators’ exceptionally intelligent manipulations are relegated to the online supplemental materials.