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Watcha Doing with Evolution Symposium

On February 12, 2016 Grand Valley State held its first every Darwin Day celebration. One of the main events was a symposium highlighting student and faculty research across the campus. Below you will find the speakers, titles, and abstracts for each of the presentations given at the "Watcha Doing with Evolution" symposium.

Keynote Address


Darwinian Medicine

Speaker: Dr. Wenda Trevathan

Abstract: Charles Darwin’s brave thinking and writing on evolution by natural selection have helped us understand the diversity of life forms in the modern world.  But are there ways in which his thinking can be applied to our everyday lives, specifically by helping us understand why we get sick and what we can do about it?  Can we use this curiosity about evolution and medicine to develop ways to improve our health?  This talk will focus on three categories of health challenges that Darwin’s ideas may help us solve.  One is the evolution of antibiotic resistance to diseases that are emerging and re-emerging in human populations today.  A second area of Darwinian Medicine concerns health responses that are usually regarded as problematic but may actually be advantageous in fighting disease and disorders.   Finally, an area of Darwinian Medicine that has received a lot of attention by scholars and the general public is the “mismatch hypothesis,” which argues that many contemporary health problems result from a discordance between human bodies that evolved in environments that are dramatically different from the ones we inhabit today.   

Dr. Wenda Trevathan, Ph.D

Flash Talks


Adaptation times can be shorter than we think: demonstration of invasive species adapted advantage in under 40 years.

Speaker: Eric Ramsson, BMS faculty

Abstract: If you are like me, then perhaps you started off thinking that the adaptation of organisms is a slow and gradual process. It must take hundreds, if not thousands of years; certainly it wouldn't take place within my lifetime. However, a recent study on an invasive crayfish, Orconectes rusticus (rusty crayfish), conclusively demonstrates that rusty crayfish from an invaded lake grow faster and have greater chances of survival when compared to the rusty crayfish taken from their native habitat. Not only do they grow faster, but they also survive better both in the face of predation and with lower resources. These adaptations occurred in less than 40 years, much faster than most would think feasible for a significant advantageous adaptation.


Title: Beyond the Goldilocks Zone: The search for life in our solar system

Speaker: Kevin Thaisen, Geology Faculty

Abstract: Earth is in the Goldilocks Zone; that area around a star that isn’t too hot or too cold to have liquid water at the surface, it’s just right. This has been the paradigm for where life could exist in a star system for many decades. But our ideas of where life can exist have changed considerably since that idea was first proposed, in particular because we discovered life that not only survived, but thrived in extreme environments here on Earth. We have now identified many types of life that can thrive in extremely high or low temperatures, pressures, acidity, high levels radioactivity, etc. These species are collectively known as extremophiles, and their existence here on Earth has expanded our understanding of where life might exist throughout the rest of the solar system. And as it turns out, there are more places that could potentially harbor life than we previously thought.


Title: The Cognitive Sciences of Religion

Speaker: Luke Galen, Psychology Faculty

Abstract: CSR posits that many features underlying religious thought originate from, and are facilitated by evolved mechanisms or functional modules. These are nearly universal across cultures and are characterized by their early appearance in development prior to cultural exposure (i.e., present in young children), a relatively small degree of conscious control (i.e., automatic and intuitive), and the tenacity (i.e., cognitively ‘sticky’). There is current debate regarding which features of religiosity are evolutionarily adaptive as opposed to being byproducts of modules that evolved to facilitate nonreligious tasks. My work pertains to that portion of the CSR relevant to prosociality. Although adaptationists suggest that belief in religion is beneficial for group cooperation, it is often not mentioned that ingroup cohesion takes place simultaneously with between-group conflict. Therefore, religion promotes not generalized prosociality but rather ingroup favoritism. Also, the byproduct theories suggest that religion is only one possible manifestation of cognitive tendencies; other forms are secular versions that resemble religious thought without spiritual components. My research examines the relative prosociality (e.g., trust) displayed by religious vs. secular individuals. Many features attributed to religion are, in reality, attributable to secular underlying mechanisms.


Title: Modern Departure from an Evolutionary Past: Fire in the Belly!

Speaker: Matt Baker, Movement Science Student

Abstract: Half of all adults in the United States live with one or more chronic conditions, making it the leading causes of death and disability and account for almost 70% of all deaths in the United States. The mismatch theory suggests that the evolutionary traits that have evolved for humans to survive and flourish are incompatible to the current environment and may be responsible for the rising chronic disease epidemic of the modern-man. The underlying shared mechanism of chronic illness, including metabolic, cardiovascular and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, is subclinical chronic inflammation. Lifestyle toxins such as high-fat, low-fiber and nutrient sparse diets combined with sedentary lifestyle contribute to a discordant mismatch between our evolutionary genomes and our current environment, leading to chronic inflammation and illness. The inflammatory response is intimately linked to the health of our gut and it’s associated microbial community. The health of our symbiotic relationship of host to microbiome is highly susceptible to the quality of diet and exercise adoption. Diet and exercise patterns that more closely resemble those of our evolutionary past have been shown to improve gut health and reduce signs of inflammation, chronic illness and disease.


Title: Your brain, my brain, Parkinson's disease patient's brain

Speaker: Sok Kean Khoo, Cellular and Molecular Biology Faculty

Abstract: Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease. Resting tremors, rigidity, bradykinesia, and postural instability are four characteristic symptoms that typically lead to its first diagnostic as PD. These motor symptoms are controlled primarily by the dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain. These motor features are subtle and by the time of diagnosis, 50-70% of a patient’s dopaminergic neurons can be lost. My research focus is to identify and develop accurate biomarkers for detecting and tracking PD. PD biomarkers will enable early detection and allow neuroprotective strategies to be employed to improve its management and treatment.


Title: Genetic Profiling to Better Understand the Molecular Etiology of Cerebral Palsy

Speaker: Brooke Armistead, Cellular and Molecular Biology Student

Abstract: Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a neurological syndrome in which its symptoms permanently damage the developing motor skills of infants and newborns. Affecting approximately 10,000 babies born each year in the United States, there is an essential need for research on this disease. In almost all cases, the cause of CP is unknown. However, some researchers believe it may be due to abnormal brain development during the varying times of gestational fetal development. Using newborn blood spots, researchers have identified three specific gene sets - inflammatory, asphyxia, and thyroidal - which are significantly differentiated between CP and healthy controls. With these findings, researchers are one step closer in understanding the molecular etiology of CP.


Title: Investigating the roles of microRNAs, miR-34b and miR-34c, in an in vitro model of Parkinson's disease.

Speaker: Sapana Shinde, Cellular and Molecular Biology Student

Abstract: Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by abnormal amounts of protein, alpha-synuclein (aSyn), being aggregated in midbrain dopamine neurons. Recently, microRNAs (miRNAs), a class of small regulatory RNAs, are being actively pursued in the scientific community for their role in many important biological processes. With the growing number of population being affected with PD, there is a need to study the role of miRNAs in PD to better understand its pathology. Recent reports demonstrate that the expression of aSyn messenger RNA (mRNA) is being controlled by miRNAs. For example, the expression of miR-34b/34c is shown to decrease in several brain regions in PD patients; these miRNAs are also known to target and alter the expression of aSyn. In this research study, we propose to establish an in vitro model of PD. The conditions of aSyn aggregation are mimicked in this cell model in order to investigate the roles of miRNA-34b/34c in PD. This cell model can eventually be used as the basis to evaluate potential miRNA-based disease-modifying strategies that target and reduce aSyn as PD therapeutics.


Title: Gene Expression Changes in Blood Can Reflect Infection Stages of Typhoid Fever in Children

Speaker: Sarah Brown, Cellular and Molecular Biology Student

Abstract: Typhoid fever is caused by Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi (S. Typhi), a human-restricted pathogenic bacteria. Typhoid Fever is recognized by The World Health Organization as a global health problem. There are over 21 million cases and 200,000 to 600,000 deaths annually worldwide. Because of ineffective diagnostics, broad spectrum antibiotics are given as treatment for all bacteremia. This causes antibiotic resistance. The aim of this project is to identify genetic signatures for early-diagnostic and stratification of children with typhoid fever. Total RNA extracted from blood at acute, convalescent and recovery phases of infection (in patients under 5 years old) were processed with gene expression microarrays. We found 179 and 175 differentially-expressed genes between acute / convalescent and acute / recovery, respectively. Using q-RT PCR, preliminary data showed innate immune system genes, AIM2 (absent in melanoma 2) and CD274 (CD274 molecule) having high expression during acute phase and decreased expression in convalescence and recovery phases. Conversely, gene expression of adaptive immune system gene, IL5RA (interleukin 5 receptor, alpha) is lower in the acute phase and eventually increased in the convalescence and recovery phases. The expression of these genes reflects the host immune response according to its infectious stages.


Title: Why girls dont throw like boys: Throwing is a male adaptation in humans.

Speaker: Michael Lombardo, Biology Faculty

Abstract: The evolution of the ability to throw projectiles for distance, speed, and accuracy was a watershed event in human evolution. Forceful throwing improved our effectiveness as predators and may have influenced the evolution of our social complexity. We predict sex differences in a variety of domains to be the evolutionary consequences of observations that males throw projectiles more often than do females in both combat and hunting. Once the effective use of projectile weapons became critical to success in combat and hunting, the importance of the ability to throw, intercept, and dodge projectiles would have placed males under strong selection to become proficient at these skills. As predicted males, compared to females, display well-developed adaptations for high speed throwing and superior throwing performance (distance, speed, targeting ability).


Title: Is there a Sex Difference in Setting "Guinness-Style" World Records? A Test of the Male Show-Off Hypothesis

Speaker: Robert Deaner, Psychology Faculty

Abstract: Throughout history, men have dominated individually-expressive cultural domains such as athletics, painting, music, science and literature. One explanation for this pattern is that women have been excluded from participating. Although exclusion must be important, evolutionists have suggested that male dominance can be partly understood as a manifestation of men’s adaptations to ”show off” and demonstrate their talents compared to those of other men. ‘Showing off’ would allow men to signal their quality to potential mates, competitors, and allies. If men are more predisposed to ‘show off’, we should find evidence of greater male effort even in domains where women have equal opportunities. We are testing this prediction by quantifying ‘Guinness style’ world records set by men and women at RecordSetter, where individuals define their own records and provide video evidence of setting them. There are no rewards for setting these records except for the fame and notoriety of achieving them and there no barriers (e.g., fees) to setting records. Thus, record setting should be a good indicator of motivation to show-off. We have coded 370 records so far and found that men set 80% of them. We will discuss alternative explanations for this finding and its evolutionary and practical significance.


Title: Selection, Observing Systems, and Art

Speaker: John Bruni, School of Communications Faculty

Abstract: Charles Darwin gets the ball rolling when he described the crucial connections between organisms and their environments. Systems theorist Niklas Luhmann extends Darwin’s exegesis to living and non-living complex systems. According to Luhmann, these systems use observations to build up their internal complexity in response to environmental complexity. One of the most interesting ideas of Darwin, the idea of selection, gets reworked by Luhmann into how environmental observations depend upon a constant process whereby systems make decisions forced by the pressures of time. My work focuses on how Luhmann’s model, derived from Darwin, has two important ramifications for interpreting art. First, all interpretations of art are second-order observations (observations of observations), rendering these observations as contingent upon the observer. Second, this means that art imitates how the world cannot be viewed as a whole: the limits of someone’s observation can only be disclosed by another observer, who is limited in the same way. Foregrounding contingency in artistic form and interpretation, as Luhmann does, reinforces his insistence that art stages an observation of reality as it is or as it could be.


Title: The Evolution of Animal Art

Speaker: Kirsten Strom, Art and Design Faculty

Abstract: One of the major implications of evolutionary theory is that humans are primates closely related not only to other primates, but also to myriad other species with whom we share a very ancient common progenitor. Darwin particularly stressed this point in The Descent of Man, in which he remarked repeatedly that differences between humans and other animals are differences of degree and not kind. He furthermore emphasized that our likeness to other animals is not merely anatomical, but that we share with them many intellectual and emotional commonalities as well. Darwin even ascribed to other animals an aesthetic faculty, evident for example in bird song and in the degree to which many animal species have evolved evidently “useless” adaptations in order to be more beautiful to potential mates, as with the elaborate plumage of peacock. This presentation will consider evidence for the “higher” faculties of intellect and aesthetic appreciation in nonhuman animals through an exploration of animals as producers of art and architecture. Examples will include beaver dams, beehives, and bower bird “houses”, as well as “paintings” produced by elephants, gorillas, and numerous other animals in a captive state.


Title: It's a Matter of Size

Speaker: Gary Greer, Biology Faculty

Abstract: The size of an organism dictates the specific forms of selection that will shape its evolution. Very small organisms (e.g., fairy flies and yeast) are little affected by gravity and can rely on diffusion to transport materials throughout their bodies, but are greatly affected by the "thickness" and "stickiness" of their surroundings. Metabolically efficient, they live life in the "fast lane", active and short-lived with boom-bust populations that capitalize on temporarily abundant resources. The converse is true for very large organisms (e.g., blue whales and redwood trees), challenged by gravity and physical challenges to transporting materials throughout the body, they live life in the "slow lane", comparatively slow and long-lived with generally steady populations that capitalize on niches of lower resource availability and/or lower rates of predation. Biophysical constraints set an upward limit to the maximum size of thick, histologically complex organisms.


Title: Two tickets to paradise: Molecular biogeography reveals the evolutionary history of hoary bats in Hawaii

Speaker: Amy Russell, Biology Faculty

Abstract: The Hawaiian islands are an extremely isolated oceanic archipelago, and their fauna has long served as models of dispersal in island biogeography. I use molecular genetic data to test the hypotheses that (1) Hawaiian hoary bats originated via dispersal from North America rather than from South America, and (2) modern Hawaiian populations were founded from multiple dispersal events, and thus represent differentiated populations with distinct evolutionary histories. Mitochondrial data support a biogeographic history of multiple, relatively recent dispersals of hoary bats from North America to the Hawaiian islands. Coalescent demographic analyses suggest that modern populations of Hawaiian hoary bats were founded no more than 10 kya. This finding of multiple evolutionarily significant units in Hawai'i highlights a need to re-evaluate the conservation status of hoary bats in Hawai'i.


Title: The Influence of Evolutionary Ideas on the Field of Archaeology

Speaker: Mark Schwartz, Anthropology Faculty

Abstract: The principles of Darwinian evolution have had an important impact on archaeological theory and methods since the founding of the discipline. This brief talk will examine some of the ways archaeologists have attempted to employ some of the tenets of evolutionary theory in the study of cultural change. Methodological techniques such as seriation will be shown. The limitations of applying a theory used to explain biological change to human cultures will also be discussed.


Title: A Surprising Result in Characterizing Living Mammal Dietary Guilds

Speaker: Laura Stroik, BMS faculty

Abstract: In order to understand the evolution of mammal communities and species interactions in the fossil record, researchers often use living communities as models of the past. Thus, to reconstruct dietary competition in an early Eocene (ca. 56 Ma) mammal guild, two extant dietary guilds (comprising small-bodied, frugivorous-insectivorous, arboreal mammals from Balta, Peru and Mindanao, Philippines) were first characterized using molar morphological measures. These measures were collected on microCT scans of molar specimens, and a phylogenetic principal component analysis (PCA) was performed on these data. Although the family-level taxonomic compositions and broad dietary regimes of these two guilds overlap considerably, the dietary niches of these guilds reconstructed via phylogenetic PCA are completely distinct. Possible explanations of this unexpected result are explored.


Title: If you build it, they will come: a lack of change in encrusting communities as evidence of evolution

Speaker: Trisha Smrecak, Geology Faculty

Abstract: Encrusting communities are considered “fouling organisms” in oceans today, covering boat hulls and clams. A healthy economic industry has emerged to remove them. But to the paleontologists, encrusting organisms pristinely preserve an ecological dataset representing a short interval in geologic time. Encrusters preserve their exact life position, show competition with other encrusters, and provide hints of community succession (Mistiaen et al., 2012; Rodland et al., 2004, 2014). They can record parasitic interactions with their host taxa, and provide paleontologists with hints of the functional morphology of host taxa soft parts (e.g. Richards, 1972). Encrusters can also yield evidence of behavior, even in modern taxa like blue crabs (Key et al, 2000). So how much have encrustation patterns in these paleoecologically rich communities changed through time? Increasingly, paleontologists believe the patterns have changed very little (e.g. Brett et al., 2012). Despite complete taxonomic turnovers associated with marine extinctions in the last 450 million years, the spatial abundance of encrusting organisms appears to be controlled by physical parameters and can be used to estimate relative depth of the assemblages from which they were found across geologic time. Even some modern encrusting assemblages fit the metrics predicted by the fossil encrusters.


Title: Cordell Formation at Seul Choix Point, Upper Michigan: Implications for Silurian (Llandovery-Wenlock) Paleoenvironments

Speaker: Brittany Ward, Geology Student

Abstract: During the Silurian (443.7 to 416.0 Ma) Michigan was covered by an epicontinental sea. This study is a sedimentological and paleoenvironmental analysis of the dolostones exposed at Seul Choix Point, Michigan. The Cordell dolostone was classified as wakestones and packstones. Corals and stromatolite-stromatoporid mounds are the most abundant fauna, ~70 to 75% and ~25%, respectively, of the total fauna. A faunal map of a single bedding plane of the Cordell Formation shows an average of three specimens located every square meter. Orientation data were collected of cephalopods in the Cordell and compared with probable Silurian wind directions, showing three modes of direction: ~165/345 degrees, ~25/205 degrees, and ~65/245 degrees. Stable isotopes ratios for ´18O and ´13C were determined and correlated with previous studies to estimate a precise age. The inferred moderate energy level, indicated by dolostone classifications, is consistent with those found at or above the effective wave base in an epicontinental sea. The dominance of corals and stromatolite-stromatoporid indicate a community at an estimated depth of ~10 - 30 m. Shell orientations indicate possible perpendicular orientation of shells to ocean currents. ´18O and ´13C data suggest the Cordell and Engadine Formation contact is age 428.2 Ma.