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Evolution In Flight

Evolution In FlightScientist and Tufts graduate Sean Carroll is at the forefront of the field of evolutionary developmental biology, exploring how things came to be and where they're headed.

Boston [06.10.05] In his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Sean Carroll has watched the males of the Drosophila biarmipes species of spotted fruit fly make potential female mates swoon. For theTufts graduate, the difference between that species and the unspotted, more commonly studied Drosophila melanogaster highlights the thrill of discovery inherent in the study of animal evolution.

"There is mystery and wonder in the revelations of science, and not being open to this is really missing a story that is fascinating and rewarding," Carroll told U.S. News and World Report.

Carroll, who received his Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts’ Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in 1983 at the age of 22, set out from the start to blaze a trail into the then-nascent field of evolutionary developmental biology. In the years since, he has emerged as a leader in the field, working as an investigator with the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1990.

"All changes in animal form come about through changes in development, but we knew next to nothing about development when I started [graduate school]," he told U.S. News and World Report. "So I knew we would have to push the field forward first."

With the fruit flies, for instance, Carroll and his team found that while all fruit flies have the gene needed to create the wing spots, the males of the biarmipes species have a mutation that "switches" the gene on at a higher level.

Carroll and scientists like him are examining biological and genetic clues to determine the reasons why organisms are the way they are and also explore relationships between all species.

According to U.S. News and World Report, one of the earliest discoveries occurred the year Carroll graduated from Tufts – the finding that a set of genes called Hox genes controlled development not only in fruit flies but also in all animals. Subsequent study into the intricate genetic "switches" that determine an animal's features and other elements of genetic control tried to explain both the redundancy and uniqueness found throughout the animal kingdom.

His new book– Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of EvoDevo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom – discusses the field in depth.

"Writing in a clear, straightforward style and drawing on his own love for wildlife (and classic rock) for inspiration, Carroll…reveals a remarkable series of insights into how evolution has shaped – and continues to shape – the wondrous assortment of creatures that share this planet with us," the magazine described.

With the debate over evolution – particularly teaching about it in public schools – heating up again, Carroll says he’s ready to defend his livelihood.

"Your religious views are your own, but there is no more doubt about evolution than there is about cancer, kidney function, or volcanoes," he told the magazine. "If you reject science and deny evolution, you've picked a battle, and I'll fight it whenever and wherever I can."

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