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Stanford researchers develop system for field testing mechanisms of evolution

STANFORD, Calif. - Evolutionary biology has always faced a major hurdle - how to test a process that takes place over thousands, if not millions, of years. Researchers at Stanford University may have come up with a solution.

Genetic mutations and the possible mechanisms underlying evolution have been studied in laboratory animals for decades, said David Kingsley, PhD, professor of developmental biology and assistant investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The challenge has been to find a means of applying what scientists know to be true in the lab to systems in the natural world. In a paper published Dec. 20 in the journal Nature, Kingsley and his team propose that a small spiny fish called the three-spine stickleback, and the gene-linkage map of the fish's chromosomes that the team has developed, may be the tools evolutionary biologists have been needing.

The key, according to Kingsley, was to find two populations, that unlike laboratory bred mice and rats, would have traits that had evolved naturally and yet could still be cross-bred.

"What we needed were two species that had diverged fairly recently, had distinct morphological differences, were fast-growing and easy to keep in the laboratory," said Kingsley. It was also important to find two species, Kingsley said, that could produce viable offspring in the lab even if they would not naturally mate in the wild. The group's intent was to develop a map of the inheritance patterns showing the links between genes from one generation to another. According to Kingsley, it is a system used to study genetics in laboratory-bred mice, but he wanted to develop a system that could test inheritance patterns, mutations, and ultimately the mechanisms underlying evolution in natural populations.

"It's part of an age-old debate," Kingsley said. "Does evolution occur through infinitesimally small genetic changes involving a very large number of genes, or doe
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Contact: Sheila Foster
safoster@stanford.edu
650-723-3900
Stanford University Medical Center
20-Dec-2001


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