UR biologist H. Allen Orr and graduate student John Paul Masly have recently published a series of research papers on genetics that has been ranked as the seventh most important scientific breakthrough by Science Magazine, the world’s premiere natural sciences research journal.

Masly’s research, funded predominantly by the National Institute of Health, has taken more than six years, during which he has systematically proven the validity of an arcane biological theory long considered inaccurate. It has effectively proven that over the course of evolution, relocation of certain genes from one portion of the genome to another can indeed produce individuals who are either cytologically or physiologically incapable of reproducing with their non-mutated brethren.

The duo’s discoveries have necessitated the entire scientific community to reexamine its initial depiction of the processes driving evolution.

This development, coupled with very specific complementary environmental pressures, including but not necessarily limited to geographic isolation and/or climate change, can cause enough pressure to initiate speciation.

Speciation is the process by which a new species arises as a regional variant of a parent population.

This theory has circulated through the scientific community since famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky studied fruit flies in 1930. However, 77 years of technological advancement was needed before biologists had the tools and knowledge that were necessary to fully investigate the process of intra-species evolution.

In the interim, a competing theory which posits a collection of gradual mutations over time was actually observed in nature. Due to its apparent tangibility, this theory eventually replaced the moving gene hypothesis. The re-introduction of the moving gene hypothesis no doubt carries significant implications; however, it is still too soon to speculate on the effect it will have on the greater scientific community.

An equally significant scientific breakthrough, also originating from UR, comes from a research team led by Daven Presgraves.

Presgraves, who was also mentioned in Science Magazine’s Top Ten list, has been widely extolled for his October publication in Molecular Biology and Evolution in which he observed a gene that causes hybrid lethality and promotes speciation. The researcher’s paper examined hybrid incompatibility in Drosophila fruit flies. In his publication, Presgraves defines the evolutionary process of a specific gene as it developed different functions in two closely related species of flies.

The official hypothesis proposes that the two fly species’ ancestor passed on conflicting genetic material to its protgs. Two distinct species formed when two different genetic pathways leading to two different solutions to the conflict were found. Some flies evolved in one direction, while some flies evolved in the other. Eventually reproducibility between the two branches of flies became impossible and two individual species of flies were born.

These two research publications represent major breakthroughs in the field of evolutionary studies. Both groups of UR researchers are currently moving forward in their investigation of evolutionary pathways.

Once again, the scientific community finds itself questioning the validity of theories once thought valid in the face of new evidence garnered from the industry’s ever advancing technological capabilities. But of course, this process of continuous revitalization is at the very core of the scientific philosophy.

Singh is a member of the class of 2008.

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