Thursday April 26th 8PM
Do butterflies dream of evolutionary free-jazz and genetic tattoos?
The biosphere is populated with species so astonishing that if they did not exist, they would be hard to believe. The generation of this explosive diversity during evolutionary deep time relies on the modification of development, tweaking the construction modules that make a complex organism out of a single original cell, the fertilized egg. Studying this tinkering process, the interaction between ontogenesis and phylogenesis, has been the focus of a great deal of fundamental research for the past 25 years, and the insights are staggering. They both explain why we are all so different on this planet, and at the same time, how all animals are united behind the sharing of fundamental building blocks, the so called developmental genetic toolkit that is incessantly modified, purposelessly but nonetheless, with rules. Let us go deep into the study of the greatest art show on Earth, and explore these principles using the visually stunning features of butterflies and their wing patterns. How does the scientist approach these simple questions: how does DNA instructs pattern formation on the wing? and the diversification of shapes and color motifs therein? Can we manipulate these patterns, and shall we? What are the ethical limits of the modification of nature, are we harnessing it, or interrogating it, can it strengthen our relationship with it, or alienate us from it? As we are starting to scratch the iceberg that hides the secrets of nature's creativity, we can start drawing conclusions on it modus operandi and fundamental processes. One thing is clear: it is more messy, rhizomatic and rambunctious than composed, compartmented, and orchestrated.
Arnaud Martin is an Assistant Professor at the George Washington University since 2016 and has been carrying research in the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology for the past 12 years at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon(France), UC Irvine, and UC Berkeley. He has specialized in the study of the genetic and developmental mechanisms behind butterfly wing patterns, in addition to some other work on crustacean limbs and rodent teeth. He curates Gephebase (www.gephebase.org), an online database on the genetic determinants of evolution. His team is currently focusing on the use of CRISPR genome editing to understand how butterflies and moths, which encompass one out ten of all species with a name, have become so diverse.