Indiana State University Newsroom

University of California professor discusses "Genetics in the Wild"

May 13, 2009

Genetics has been incorporated into evolutionary biology in a functional sense, according to a University of California professor who spoke at Indiana State University to educate students on the importance of genetics to ecology.

John Avise, professor of biological sciences, thinks scientists have enough information to determine how genes function to produce phenotypes.

"We [scientists] are interested in learning what we can about organisms in nature using genetics as markers for history of parentage of phenology," Avise said.

One genetic beauty is that DNA is a universal molecule to life, according to Avise.

Scientists used molecular markers to study hybridization and introgression phenomenon, which is the incorporation of genes from one species into the gene pool of another species.

He discussed the diversity of molecular markers in nature.

One portion of Avise's research determined why blind cave fish appear in northeastern Mexico.

Avise collected a few blind cave fishes to compare the genetic variations.

He determined that one cave had almost zero genetic variations while the surface population had up to13 percent variation.

Scientists think that genetic drift accounts for the extraordinarily low variations.

"Caves have a constant temperature, humidity, constant low or absence of light and fairly constant food supplies throughout the years," Avise said. "They are one of the most stable environments."

Scientists believe caves and the deep sea environment were two stable, uniform ecological regimes on the planet.

Avise also has worked on several conservation issues involving endangered species.

Marine turtles can be studied by using molecular markers, according to Avise.

He explained that female marine turtles lay their eggs on a sandy beach and then eight weeks later, about 100 babies swim to sea.

"No one knows where they go for the next several years of their lives, until they become adults and recruit onto foraging grounds," Avise said. "They are very marine so it makes it difficult to study them."

But in order to save species, especially the endangered ones, scientists must find ways to study them. In studying them, science can turn emotional.

"We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature; for we will not fight to save what we do not love," Avise said, quoting Steven J. Gould, a paleontologist and former professor at Harvard University. "We really must make room for nature in our hearts."


Contact: Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University, assistant professor, at 812- 237-2395 or  

Writer: Marcie Brock, Indiana State University, media relations intern, at 812-237-3773.


Cutline: John Avise from the University of California at Irvine, speaks at ISU's fourth Annual Double Helix Speaker Series about "Genetics in the Wild." ISU Photo/Justin Schwab