Wednesday, 30 December 2009 08:22 The Evilutionary Man
Written by Ava

They Might Be Giants sang, "When your name is Evil that is good." Well, I'm not so sure--but in the case of John Dennehy--it works! 

John Dennehy calls himself the Evilutionary Biologist, but it's not what you think. Evil is just a stand in for Evol as in Evolution, which is this biologist's forte.  

And while he may not have as much experience with marine life and water as some of the other biologists, aquarists, and bloggers we've interviewed in Q&As past, we were certainly impressed with his interest in the subject and the way he related it to his current studies in both a broad and specific sense.  We were pleased to learn he does keep an aquarium, albeit a small and simple one, and that he is fascinated by bacteriophages, even in a marine organism sense. 

Learn all about evolutionist John Dennehy below and be sure to visit his blog: The Evilutionary Biologist for more on this "evil" man.

Why study evolution?

As I learned about biology in high school, I was confronted with a bewildering array of facts and details, but no overriding theme. Only when I was introduced to evolutionary theory, did biology make sense. Evolutionary theory ultimately explains why things are the way they are. On the face, evolution seems such a simple process, but the deeper you delve, the more you appreciate its underlying subtleties. I find it endlessly fascinating.

Tell me about what you are currently studying.

My main foci of my laboratory are the evolution of emerging infectious diseases and stochastic processes affecting bacteriophage life history traits. The former topic stems from my curiosity on why some newly emerged diseases spread pandemically (e.g. HIV), but others die out quickly (e.g. SARS). I am using bacteriophages (viruses of bacteria) as a biological model to study host shifts. The second focus is non-genetic variation in life history traits that results from variation in gene expression. Identical organisms in controlled environments can have highly variable traits. We are asking, for bacteriophages in laboratory environments, how much variation is there for some major life history traits, whether it is a target of natural selection, and what the consequences for organismal evolution are.

Do you study the marine world in any aspect of your current position as an evolutionary biologist? How so?

No, I do not. While my appreciation for the natural world is significant, the approach of experimental evolution holds that some fundamental biological questions are best addressed in the laboratory under controlled conditions.

Why are marine life and corals so important to Darwin’s theory of evolution?

I think coral reefs in particular were extremely significant to Charles Darwin. In fact, Darwin’s first monograph, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, set the tone for his later evolutionary thinking. Many of the themes of On the Origin of Species were first explicated here, such as the immensity of geological time, the gradualism and randomness of evolutionary change, and the origin of order from disorder based on simple rules.

In what ways are bodies of water (oceans) important to evolution?

Oceans are likely the cradle of life and the source of all organisms. Our ancestors were shaped in oceans and we likely bear many vestiges of our watery past.

Do current issues like climate change, ocean acidification, and the like affect the way you study the evolutionary process among marine life, corals, etc.

While such phenomena are very troubling to me, they are essentially political issues. The scientific issues are not under debate. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is unquestionably rising, and is linked to warming temperatures, habitat loss, oceanic acidification etc. The major remaining scientific question that arises is how will climate change affect the plants and animals around us? Most will fare poorly, I suspect, especially humans.

Tell me about your blog, The Evilutionary Biologist.

I started my blog mostly as a lark, and a desire to share what I found interesting with the broader public. I was really astonished by the reactions it has generated and the connections I have formed. Unfortunately it demands considerable time and effort. As an untenured, assistant professor, I don’t have a lot of time to spare these days.

What is the Dennehy Lab?

The Dennehy Lab is a small intellectual community that promotes a curiosity-driven lifestyle. We are well-equipped with the tools to explore microbial ecology, evolution and molecular biology. While ostensibly we are focused on the questions I mention above (see #2), I encourage my students to explore anything they want to. One student’s side project is cultivating microbes he believes are growing on frozen mango ice cream. Another wants to use RNAi to defend against viral pathogens.

According the Dennehy Lab site, you are studying bacteriophages.  How do these bacteriophages affect marine life, if at all?

While I mostly use bacteriophages because of their effectiveness as tools to explore ecology and evolution, they are tremendously fascinating in their own right. Phages are the main parasites of bacteria, and bacteria form the base of the food chain. Bacteria are found in ocean water at a density of 10^6 cells/ml and phages with a concentration of 10^7 particles/ml. Globally there are an estimated 10^30 and 10^31 bacteria and phage respectively (all the stars in the universe only number 10^21). Remarkably, virus-mediated bacterioplankton mortality is on the order of 15% per day. Clearly phages are a major driver of oceanic ecosystem processes and play critical roles in aquatic food webs.

Have you ever owned an aquarium? What are your thoughts on owning one?

I currently maintain a very simple aquarium with some Telescope Goldfish. I wish I had more time and energy to expand to more sophisticated and elaborate setups. My feeling is that captive-bred fish should be used in preference to wild-caught fish, but there is no reason why wild-caught fish cannot be acquired sustainably. Ultimately, it is the aquarium owner’s responsibility to educate themselves on conservation issues regarding their desired organisms, and avoid choosing species of ecological or environmental concern. 

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