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Is it just me or do e-coli look like tampons?

Posted by PopTart | June 13, 2008 7:23 PM

Yes. But. Every stinging slap in the face provided the ID creationists is greeted with "Thank you sir, may I have another."

Science and rational discourse can only go so far. I suppose there's enough incentives for continued idiocy. F'rinstance, you can make money at it.

Posted by umvue | June 13, 2008 7:39 PM

Why would anything a bunch of scientists have to say even be heard by Intelligent Design creationists, let alone taken as a slap in the face?

Posted by elenchos | June 13, 2008 8:07 PM

Thank you for posting this. I find it both very informative and useful.

There are those of us out there who choose to occasionally engage creationists, most of whom are not all that well informed about what they claim to believe (in my experience.) Sometimes being able to pull something like this out does really make them think. Really. So thanks again.

Posted by greendyke | June 13, 2008 8:20 PM

It's not quite an all or nothing random leap.

In an environment that heavy in citrate some degradation products would also be present. So having some of the enzymes needed would give the phenotype a marginal advantage.

It's also possible that some of the genes coding for the relevant enzymes were present but simply unexpressed. So the relevant mutations, or some of them could have been relatively minor.

20,000 generations to synthesize the working enzymes de novo is not statistically possible. 20,000 generations to switch on and tweak exisiting genes, sure.

Posted by kinaidos | June 13, 2008 8:26 PM

Goddamnit... I want a copy of that article. Wanna email me a PDF?

Every time some asshat creationist says "teach the controversy!" it makes me want to really REALLY teach the controversy, 'cause the evidence is so fucking irrefutable. If I can get away with it, I just might teach a little of the controversy next year... I teach science at a private school, so it might actually fly. Rawk. :-)

Posted by Lindsey | June 13, 2008 8:27 PM

Very elegant.

My e. coli colony will eat adventurously tonight! And I will use this knowledge only to enhance my powers of good.

Thank you for letting us know about it.

Luisita, PhD

Posted by Claire Ramsey | June 13, 2008 8:27 PM

That's interesting, whateveryournameis Galoot or something, but how come the Stranger isn't talking about why Josh Feit got fired?

Posted by Ahmet Vomit | June 13, 2008 8:52 PM

Much as I love reading about science I'm not a scientist so forgive me if this question is lame, I'm also extremely tired so forgive the tampon joke. Anyway, why is it considered a random mutation?

And, is there no way to believe both in the theory of evolution and in a spiritual component to the universe?

Posted by PopTart | June 13, 2008 9:02 PM

Thanks for that, Jonathan. Unfortunately, those who need to read that article the most are also the most unlikely to read it. You're basically preaching to the choir here.

Posted by kebabs | June 13, 2008 9:10 PM

To PopTart @9:

I'll let Dr. Golob tackle your first question, since I've had more than a few drinks to celebrate my own scientific experiment well done earlier this week.

But, in regards to your second question, from a personal perspective, I would say YES - it is indeed possible to believe in the FACT of evolution (via the theory of natural selection as a mechanism for the FACT of evolution) AND also believe in a "spiritual component to the universe." Granted, a significant fraction of the scientists I know and interact with are openly atheist or agnostic. But, it has been my impression that a silent majority of them are spiritual or religious in some sense. Not quite the Bible-thumping Southern Baptists of my youth, but spiritual and religious in some sense.

And for the record, a vast majority of the scientists I know and interact with are evolutionary biologists.

Posted by James | June 13, 2008 9:11 PM

If it takes 30,000 generations just to metabolize citrate, how many generations would it take to, say, develop an eye? Has the earth been around that long? And no, I'm not a creationist, but this is one thing I don't understand...

Posted by Mr Me | June 13, 2008 9:25 PM

If creationists payed any attention to convincing evidence, we wouldn't still be having to deal with them. This will be dismissed as an example of "micro-evolution" which they claim is completely different from "macro-evolution"

Posted by mnm | June 13, 2008 9:30 PM

@12: Richard Dawkins has written about this. Check out:

It seems that functioning eyes have evolved about 40 to 60 different times in the past. Mathematical models show that once a light-sensitive cell develops, it would take about 400,000 generations to evolve a true eyeball with a lens and all that. At 1 year per generation, that's a half-million years, and we've had enough time on earth with multicellular organisms for eyes to evolve 1500 times in succession.

Posted by snaggle | June 13, 2008 9:49 PM

Very interesting, Mr. Golob. But how do you know that this "evolution" that you speak of isn't just a test of your faith? You know, like all of those dinosaur bones?

Posted by Mahtli69 | June 13, 2008 9:54 PM


(begin shameless self-promotion) I write a little blog called De Novo which seeks to address this very issue, and though I'm not a scientist by trade, I read and gather a lot of writings by esteemed scientists which touch on this matter, hopefully letting them speak for themselves, then gluing it together with a little philosophy, a little metaphysics, a little mythology, and a touch of music theory. It's only as good as the criticism it gets.

Posted by DavidG | June 13, 2008 10:32 PM

Just to play devil's advocate for a second here:

I think the thing that seems disingenuous about the pure science perspective is that the complexity of organic systems and interrelationships, and the infinitely subtle mechanisms of biological feedback that allow species to co-evolve and so on, seem to be nearly infinite. Scientists are constantly announcing a new and ground-breaking understanding of some biological discipline that, we had been led to believe, was fairly well understood.

And that falls into a general social and historical trend of scientists claiming to have something figured out (DDT is harmless and formula works just as well or better than breast milk) and then turning out to be spectacularly wrong about it down the line. This makes the concept of "pure science" extremely suspect to the average person. And further investigation doesn't allay that suspicion: the more one studies the history of scientific inquiry, the more examples one will find of scientific method being bent, ignored or abused for reasons ranging from ego to ideology.

Consequently, I think people generally apply a variation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to the fruit of scientific inquiry: the more loaded a question is, the less likely it is that one can trust the answers provided by qualified experts. Disparage it all you like, it's the exact same impulse that would make a person suspicious of a new study telling us that cigarettes are good for you, or that black people are genetically predisposed to be stupider than white people. And that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Full disclosure: I do believe in God, but I only ascribe divine influence to events that are, by definition, unobservable (creation of the universe, what happens after you die, etc). I do acknowledge that evolution is a fact rather than a theory and I don't believe in intelligent design, and I generally find the arguments of ID advocates to be circular and/or stupid. But I can understand why they're not impressed by the authority of science or scientists.

Posted by Judah | June 13, 2008 11:09 PM

#9: The doctrine of Biblical literalism as we now know it is actually historically pretty recent -- only about as old as the theory of evolution, in fact. And it is certainly not universally agreed upon among communities of faith. So for example there are many, many Christians, Jews and Muslims who accept the six-days-to-make-the-Earth story in Genesis as just that, a story.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote a book called Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life that's a pretty good treatment of the idea that science and religion need not be mutually exclusive or antagonistic (although he does argue they need to learn to play by certain ground rules in order to stay out of each other's way.)

Posted by flamingbanjo | June 13, 2008 11:13 PM

"And that falls into a general social and historical trend of scientists claiming to have something figured out" ... "This makes the concept of "pure science" extremely suspect to the average person."

I think that you've demonstrated one of the major problems, namely that your average person doesn't see science being done. What he does see is popular science reporting, which tends to tout relatively incremental results as being groundbreaking and definitive. The reality is that science does not have claim to have things figured out, we collect evidence, deduce principles, induce models, etc. To a scientist, it's generally quite clear where the grey areas are, what sort of certainty given types of studies provide, whether a paper's conclusions follow from its results or whether they better serve a competing model.

It would be truer to say that science doesn't claim to have anything figured out. All conclusions are provisional and subject to revision in the face of conflicting evidence. One might be inclined to see this uncertainty as a weakness, something that would prevent any real advances from being made. In practice, though, avenues of disproof are ultimately closed and conclusions do firm up.

Scientists just speak a different language. As an example, compare the colloquial definition of "theory" (It's just a theory!) to the scientific one.

You nailed it! "It's just a minor change. Microevolution. Show me a bacterium evolve into a gila monster or evolution is bullshit. Blah blah blah."

Posted by Bison | June 13, 2008 11:32 PM

Attack of the Killer Tampons

Posted by KELLY O | June 13, 2008 11:47 PM

@19: Well put, Bison.

Scientists almost never claim to know anything with absolute certainty. You don't get absolute certainty in the real world. When you get a lot of evidence it justifies you in believing in something with a high degree of confidence. Is it possible that your theory will be proven wrong next year? Sure. It's also possible that I'll get struck by lightning in the next 5 minutes. But it's *probability*, not possibility that makes a difference to what we should believe and how we should act.

Posted by M | June 13, 2008 11:57 PM


Well, the planet is about 4.5 billion years old. The first most basic life started about 3-3.5 billion years ago. That's an awful lot of time for everything to get to this point.

Posted by keshmeshi | June 14, 2008 12:24 AM


Posted by DW | June 14, 2008 12:52 AM
why is it considered a random mutation?
Forgive for I am drunk. But the answer to your question is "they're all random". Evolution doesn't try to solve problems. Problems arise, and mutations occur (randomly), and if they don't, everybody dies. Specialized ecosystems occur all the time, and only the ones in which organisms that can find a way to survive in them support organisms. Most mutations result in failure. That's why it takes 20,000 turns. Every once in a while, a mutation helps an organism survive in its environment. Those are the ones you hear about. That's all there is to it.
As for your other question, I have no idea, but I suspect the answer is "no". But I'm not spiritual (not unlike the Clarke Sisters) so I'm the wrong person to ask.
Posted by Fnarf | June 14, 2008 1:11 AM

My ongoing quest to edit scientific writing for clarity and style...

No one really argues the validity of natural selection. Only the most hardened young creationists contest that organisms with more adaptive traits will preferentially survive and reproduce. The Intelligent Design crowd tends to wave this off as a trivial truth, while claiming that you need a designer to provide these traits. How else could something as complicated as a metabolic pathway arise naturally? Where’s the proof that beneficial traits can simply arise, with no divine guiding hand?

Zachary Blount, Christina Borland, and Richard Lensk, from Michigan State University, set out to test this tricky question in evolution.

E. Coli, a gut bacteria commonly used in the lab, cannot eat citrate. Other organisms can, utilizing a complicated set of interacting genes. Could E. Coli, by random chance, mutate such a family of genes? How long, how many and how many generations of bacteria would it take?

The MSU scientists started some cultures of E. Coli in 1988, with a media containing a little sugar and much citrate. Any bacteria that could eat citrate would have a huge selective advantage. After 31,500 generations, one colony finally gained the ability to eat citrate. The scientists reviewed previously frozen colonies and found that the genetic parts started to piece together at around 20,000 generations.

Amazingly, just by being in a selective environment that rewarded the bacteria which learned to do a complex new task, the E. Coli mutated through generations to learn to eat citrate. This adaptive mutation is exactly as evolution would predict—an elegant demonstration of both halves of evolution, natural selection and the arising of complex traits by random mutation. Behold a stinging slap in the face of the Intelligent Design creationists, whose entire faith-system is based on the impossibility of this event.

Eat it, M. Night!

Posted by Mrs. Jarvie | June 14, 2008 1:29 AM

@19 You confuse theory/law and data. I spray a person with DDT, and he doesn't die. I can add that to my evidence. That does not mean I've explained anything. The theory of evolution is not data. It's a theory, it explains the formation of new species on our Earth. You'll notice that, in history, VERY few laws or theories have been entirely overturned, though many have been modified slightly. I don't think the average person cares about the difference between Newton's and Einstein's formulas for gravity, though. They're basically the same as far as the average person is concerned.

If evolution is ever modified (and it is, constantly), then it will be modified in such ways that the average person doesn't notice or care.

Posted by Mr Fuzzy | June 14, 2008 2:09 AM

Er, that was directed @17, actually, but 19 makes the same mistake, so whatever.

Posted by Mr Fuzzy | June 14, 2008 2:24 AM

@9- is there any answer to this question that will actually change what you believe? It is personal, and depends on how literally you interpret spiritual teachings, how restrictive those teachings are, how much weight you give to scientific findings, how comfortable you are with contradictions, and frankly how much time you spend thinking about it.

I trust science to do what it is intended to do (inspire, support and debunk explanations, not truths). I also have a wishy-washy spirituality based on a mixed anglican and first-nations upbringing, which I consciously don't interrogate too closely as I like my sense of spirituality as it is. Maybe later I will change my mind about this, maybe not. But so far it works for me.

I don't really understand why some people think that finding explanations through science drains the spirituality out of a process. Evolution is a good example- if the bible explained to us the theory of evolution it would be revered spiritually. But, since it has been uncovered using science it is somehow the "murder of god". What IS on this earth is amazing and beautiful. If you cannot see the beauty and mystery in science, then you are not looking hard enough. I mean, just think about atoms and molecules- they are positively (and negatively- har har har) wild. One of my physical chem profs in my undergrad was a devoted christian, and I do not think it was a coincidence, or that one pursuit existed despite the other.

ps. am I the only one out there completely bored and tired of all this flying-spaghetti-monster bullshit? My impression of scientists who joke about it (based largely on some I know) are super nerdy, super defensive people who are not, how do you say, deep thinkers.

Posted by ams | June 14, 2008 4:53 AM
You confuse theory/law and data. I spray a person with DDT, and he doesn't die. I can add that to my evidence. That does not mean I've explained anything. The theory of evolution is not data.

Okay, I may have done that in my conclusion re: "evolution is a fact not a theory," but otherwise I wasn't so much discussing facts on the ground (Newton's vs. Einstein's theories of gravity) as I was the broad conclusions that are announced by scientists from time to time, and which are clearly intended as policy guides for food and nutrition, education, government and so on. A scientist will spray someone down with DDT and that's just data, but some scientists will claim to be able to draw a good conclusions from that information, and then announce it to the general public -- and that's the problem I was discussing.

Posted by Judah | June 14, 2008 9:06 AM

@29: Ah, but! Do you get your news about science from reputable peer-reviewed journals, i.e. actual scientists, or do you get it from somewhere like the science section in the newspaper, written by reporters who are not actual scientists? That's a pretty important distinction.

Posted by Greg | June 14, 2008 10:18 AM

Ah, but how many generations would it take to evolve a truly complex and improbable structure ... like, say, a lighthouse???

Posted by RonK, Seattle | June 14, 2008 1:19 PM

Nothing about the experiment was random, like in nature. Intelligent beings of a higher order (than the bacteria) brought all the right ingredients together in just the right way at just the right time in just the right place to "create" the results they were wanting. They sure are intelligent those designers of science.

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | June 14, 2008 10:04 PM

Creationists will always cling to there beliefs, despite whatever evidence is presented to them. It is the narrowness of their view that is of comfort to them, and any attempt to convince them otherwise is pissin' in the wind.

Posted by Hoof Hearted | June 15, 2008 10:16 AM

I am always amazed about how much self-congratulatory, snide, condescending fun people have poking fun at anyone of Christian faith.

Why is it so important to believe that you are proving someone else wrong?

wouldn't it be better to focus your time on helping people, contributing to the general good of humanity in some way?

I'm sorry. It's more fun to belittle those you don't understand. All right then, carry on.

Posted by Disappointed. | June 15, 2008 2:53 PM

Just in case anyone cares/notices, this isn't the first experiment of its kind. At all. There are tons of really cool published papers detailing experiments where e. coli evolved a cool new/different trait. Try for more. Or look up Richard Lenski, a scientist who has done a ton of really cool evolutionary experiments with microbes. Also, @12, depending on the conditions, e. coli can create a new generation in about half an hour!! microbes rule the world!

Posted by Vivian Darkbloom | June 15, 2008 8:33 PM

Oops, I just saw that "Richard Lensk" was sited in the article. I'm pretty sure Mr. Golob meant "Lenski," not "Lensk."

Posted by Vivian Darkbloom | June 15, 2008 8:36 PM

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