In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin about the impact of viruses on our genetic makeup, and the hidden universes inside our DNA. Shubin unpacks the properties of viruses, and the ways they can disrupt our world while simultaneously setting the stage for evolutionary change. With examples of ancient viruses that attacked the human genome and were then repurposed, Shubin delves into the essential role that repurposing has played in our evolution and the story of life on Earth. He highlights how the dynamic nature of genetic mutation continues to confound and intrigue researchers today. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.
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Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we introduce you to folks coming to our stages by getting you familiar with their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. The Corona virus hits even closer to home than you might have imagined. Did you know that our genome is made up of material from many viruses that merged with other cells over the millions of years that life evolved, or that 8% of our genome is composed of dead viruses. Evolution is a strange and wonderful process that allows for amazing twists and turns in the ongoing development of life. Neil Shubin takes us through this wild ride and his new book, some assembly required decoding 4 billion years of life from ancient fossils to DNA. Neil Shubin is a paleontologist evolutionary biologist at the university of Chicago and the author of two previous books about evolution and host of the PBS series, your inner fish. He is provost of the field museum of natural history in Chicago. Shubin was scheduled to come to town hall on March 25th to talk about how the scientific discoveries of the last few decades have confirmed many of Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution and help scientists understand the steps genes take that change species. That event has been canceled due to coven 19 measures to suspend public gatherings. But our chief correspondent Steve share talks with Shubin about his book over the phone.
Hey, see, hi Neil. How are you
surviving the social distancing world? We’re living in everything. Okay. On your end.
It is though. I, I have allergies and this is the big allergy season and I had just gotten off the plane from, uh, South Carolina when, when everything sorta started hitting here.
Yeah. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling too, so it’s very strange stuff. Yeah. Yes it is. I had to send, I sent a note out to my lab this morning. Just, I said, anxiety is normal. Uh, but you know, let’s, let’s look after each other cause I’m did the anxiety level is huge, you know, and uh, we could do the test in the lab. It’s not diagnostic rate, but it’d be good enough to test folks in the lab. So, you know, we have all that stuff going. But you know, it’s just, these are crazy times with the economy, with, uh, collectively with the coronavirus. It’s just so disruptive for, I feel, you know, my students, I feel, you know, I feel they just faced so many challenges, you know, it’s just hard enough to be a, a young person, you know, and then you layer all this other stuff on. It’s like, Oh my God,
I have a, I have a, I teach at the UDaB. I have a student who, uh, in January had come back from Wu Han, uh, to see his folks. And he came back and, and he said, are you taking, cause this is really, really dangerous. I mean, my folks back there are, they’re freaked out. They’re, you know, they’re not going on the streets. Of course, it got even worse since then. Right. And, and he wrote me the other day and said, I’m serious. Are you taking these precautions? Are you being careful? Because he’s very worried. The university of Washington, um, stopped teaching, uh, in person classes for the rest of the winter quarter. And then they say, but we hope to be up again for spring quarter, which is March 30th. And I’m thinking, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how you can say that. So I’m already preparing my video lectures because I, I, uh, I wanted to start, it seems just completely appropriate to start with the Corona virus coven 19, but with viruses and how and how they relate cause in some assembly required, you go pretty deep into how we ended up with virus, Jeanette genetic materials from viruses and our genome.
Yeah. That’s one of the stunning things when you look at our, you know, what we’ve learned about evolution over the last decade or so, viruses and our relationship with viruses become this incredibly complex thing. You know, we think about what a virus is, you know, a virus and we don’t even know if they’re alive. I mean, I don’t even want to give a definition whether it’s living or a nerd, but the reality is they’re a piece of genetic material. Either the RNA or the DNA, but just genetic material, you know, surrounded by a, a shell, right? Um, and they lie and hurt until they contact a host. Uh, and you know, they, they can contact the host. And a lot of ways as we’re becoming increasingly familiar, um, you know, by insects can carry them, uh, droplets of air contacts, their surfaces, you name it. Anyway, as soon as they contact to a host, a chemical chain reaction goes off, right?
They attach to the host, they go inside the host cell, they go inside the nucleus, and then they commandeer the, the genetic material of the host to make more copies of themselves, you know, and that more copies can be 40 to 60,000, and then they burst out of that cell. And you know, when you think of that, we have 4 trillion cells in our body and that’s going in a lot of cells. I mean, that’s a lot of viral tissue, that strategy. I mean, they are the ultimate parasites because they take over and it’s enormously successful. The current estimate of the number of viruses on planet earth. If we can do it from like ocean water, you know, if you extrapolate from a cup of ocean water broadly is a huge number, 10 to the 31st, that’s a 10 with 31 zeros after it. When you look at that number, um, it’s larger than the stars in the known universe.
Okay. Wow. So this is like super successful. So these viruses, we’ve been living with viruses and our ancestors had been living with viruses for billions of years. So, so we have genome projects that have been done. Um, you know, obviously human genome project, genome project, Lily genome project, you know, thousands upon thousands of genome projects expanding every day. And here’s the surprise, when you look at our genome, the DNA that makes proteins, the things we call gene, 2%. Wow. Yeah, I think about that for a second. And so the rest, you know, there’s other stuff, all of that other stuff about, I mean, 8% of our total genome is actually bits of old viruses that invaded our genome and then got knocked out. So we have four times more viral bits in our own genome. Then our own genes. Okay. So we’re like walking virus, you know, that’s us. Okay.
We’re part virus. So researchers at the university of Utah, a few years back, uh, we’re, this is just tying it together. Another story to give you a different viewpoint on viruses cause we’re talking about evolution, our own evolution. Um, we’re working on this memory protein called arc arc, you know, and um, it’s a gene that makes a protein and it’s involved in memories. So mice that have a mutation in arc, uh, can solve a maze, but they don’t remember their solution the next day. So it’s clearly involved in memories. Uh, people who, um, have altered arc activity, um, have, uh, uh, increased rates of dementia, schizophrenia, memory problems and so forth. So art is a memory gene, right? So this researcher at Jason Shepherd at the university of Utah, I was looking at the arc protein. You know, I’m doing what every good biochemist does. Pops it under a high powered microscope, looks at its structure.
And he said, you know, I’ve seen this structure before. And so he goes back to his old infectious disease textbooks. He’s a young professor, but he went back to his graduate school days. Turns out that the structure he was seeing looked a lot like a protein structure, a, a capsule made by HIV. The virus that causes AIDS. Oh, Whoa. No, wait a minute. That’s weird. So he um, cause he’s in a medical school, Utah. He calls colleagues over, you know, in a different department and he makes a slide and he gives it to him. It doesn’t tell him what’s on the slide. And he says, here, why don’t you take a peek? You know, what are you, what am I, when I got on my slide, they thought it was the virus that causes AIDS. So then they sequenced this gene arc, this memory gene, and it turns out it’s a version of a virus similar to the kind that causes AIDS.
Think about that for a second. The gene is involved. So then he looks at it and says, well, you know, look, why was eight successful a, it’s a success. I mean the virus that causes HIV is successful because it has a capsule, a protein capsule around it that it makes that protects the V, the the G, the genetic material as it goes from cell to cell. So what helps HIV spread is its ability to go from cell to cell and you know, the individual and this protein capsule that it makes is a part of that success. Well, what makes arc so successful as a memory gene is the same thing. It’s ability to go from cell to cell with a protein capsule and it uses the version of the same capsule. So the more they look, they more they find that this, this memory gene is a version of a, a, of a virus.
And then they looked and they found that the hypothesis they came up with, which seems to be increasingly true there is that fish don’t have this, but all land living animals do that sometime in the very distant past, maybe about 375 billion years ago, an ancient virus attack the genome and maybe caused an infection of some kind, but got incorporated in the genome. Then got commandeered, got domesticated, got repurposed from doing its normal thing, which is infecting and you know, maybe killing or diminishing in some way, but to a new purpose got put to use, you know, so the hacker, the virus got hacked itself and got puts to Brittany, you use. And it turns out that we’re seeing this over and over again in evolution. We’re seeing some of the genes, I’m sorry, some of the proteins that are involved in, uh, the making the placenta and other structures in our bodies all have a viral history.
So it seems we have this really complicated interaction with viruses, the same properties that disrupt our world so much that wreak havoc with our world, that wreak havoc with our way of interacting with one another. Those properties are also make it useful as fuel for evolutionary change that they can be put to use in certain cases to make new structures. You know, and I can’t tell you just how, when you think about the complexity of our relationship to the natural world or the physical world as well, it’s really embedded in this story about viruses, right? So kinda, and we’re, we’re, we’re walking around part virus, right? And they are truly scary. You know, there’s no doubt about it. But they’re also been part of our history when they’ve been put to use to make new stops. So they’re also part of our humanity.
I love this sentence that’s, uh, in the, in the chapter our inner battlefield, the genome is the stuff of, well, few sentences. The genome is the stuff of B movies, like a zombie graveyard, bits and pieces of ancient viral fabrics. Fam fragments lie everywhere. By some estimates, 8% of our genome is composed of dead viruses, more than a hundred thousand of them at last count. Some of these viruses, fossil viruses kept a function, make a protein useful in pregnancy memory. Countless other activities others sit like corpses where they invaded only to be extinguished. So there’s this notion that we’re our genome. We talk about junk virus, junk, junk, junk stuff, and it’s not really, it is junk and that we aren’t using it, but it’s, it’s not completely garbage, right?
No, no, no, no. I mean, in fact, that whole is this very controversial notion calling the DNA junk, honestly. Um, because it means some of it, we know what it’s doing, but it’s not making you do that. Maybe some of these are switches that control proteins. Some of them are spacer regions. So you’re thinking about our genome as this incredibly dynamic thing. All right, let me give you a paint a word picture for you. Um, the, um, if you were to take our DNA, our genome in our, you know, it’s six foot long, we’re more or less think about that. That’s packed inside the nucleus of every single cell, uh, 4 trillion cells in our body. And it is not just a nerd, it’s sitting there opening and closing molecules are attaching to it. It’s just this, you know, this incredible concert of activity is going on to activate genes.
Well, for that to happen, you have our genes which make the protein, but then there’s all this other stuff which is involved in the actual activity of the DNA. Uh, and some of it, we actually have no idea what it’s, what it’s doing. Um, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a world is its whole universe inside our DNA. We know some of it are switches that control activity. Others are viruses that have been knocked out. But we also know that the three dimensional structure of DNA and the way that that structure changes, you know, opens and closes and twists and turns. It’s, it’s a, it’s an Acrobat rDNA all packed inside a tiny little nucleus, um, that controls the activity of genes during development as we go from embryo to adult, but also in health and disease and the normal functioning of our tissues. I mean, it’s just, um, you know, when you think about what we’ve learned about the genome in the last 20 years, it’s this dynamism, uh, it’s dynamism inside it, the dynamism in its act, in its relationship to the outside world. And that includes, you know, viruses, um, that, that dynamism is so incredibly important, uh, for our function of our own body, but also important for our evolutionary history.
So rather than junk, that phrases is not a good phrase in, in, um, an astronomy. And in a study of, of in astrophysics, we now have dark energy, dark matter, because we don’t really know what that is, but we know it’s there. So we call it dark cause it’s, it’s an, we’re uncertain of what it does. Is that a better way to think about all the stuff?
Oh, I love it. Yes. As infection on Carola, a good friend and colleague of mine who’s a leader in the, there’s two, there’s a physicist on Carolyn, a biologist on Carol. The biologist on Carol has been a leader in understanding how genes control development. And he, he actually refers to it as the dark matter of the genome, you know, which is, you know, that 90 X percent, which we don’t really know what it does. Uh, but we know what some of it does. And, um, you know, some of it’s controlling the activity of other genes, you know, um, and, you know, think about, it’s kind of mind blowing when you think that the DNA inside, you know, a tissue in the retina of the eye is virtually the same as the DNA inside. Uh, you know, cartilage in your knee, cartilage cell and your needs the same, right? More or less, you know, what’s different is the genes that are turned on and off the activity of those genes. So it’s not the genes per se that’s driving those differences of those tissues as much as it is the switches that control the activity of those genes in these, you know, in cartilage versus the retina or any of the other hundreds of tissues in our bodies. So really understanding those switches is what’s important for understanding what makes our body, you know, packed the way it is with the different of tissues and cells
and how it evolves. And that takes us back to the, sort of, the basic premise of this book. One of the premises of this book, uh, what Darwin said, the change in function is, is what begins what, what, uh, drives evolution.
Yeah, I was, yeah, exactly. And Lillian Hellman was put in another way. I was, um, when I was, when I was writing the book, I was reading a biography autobiography of Lillian Hellman. And she said, you know, she had a rough life and some of it self-imposed, but she, uh, uh, she said, uh, nothing of course, which she’s referring to our life. She says, nothing. Of course, effort begins when you think it does, you know? And I thought, wow, that’s kind of a motto for how we look at evolution now. You know, the antecedents we look for. And I’m a paleontologist as much as a molecular biologist. Um, the antecedents we look for always go deeper and time in different ways. And Darwin realized that, you know, he had no theory of genetics or development or anything and a very, you know, the fossil record wasn’t nearly as good back in 1859 as it is today.
But he knew that too. He said, look, these structures may have arisen for a different purpose, way back in the distant past, but it’s the change in function that is as important as anything else. Um, and to me, we see that at the level of genes we see that the level of the Oregon’s, sorry, I love to tell because it’s in my own field is most people think, you know, while lungs are related to the ability to live on land. So if you look at evolution and Eileen naively you’d suppose that the, you know, invasion of land by fish 370 million years ago, one of the big changes was the origin of lungs. And that’s manifestly not true. Lungs were around for zillions of millions of years before, you know, our ancestors ever took the first steps on land. You know, there are lung fish and being black lungs are air breathing and lungs, a very common thing.
And so the shift in much of the shift and transition from water to land didn’t as much involve new structures. It involved re-purposing or finding new functions for structures that already existed. You know, and, and so we can trace the histories, the history of these things as much deeper in time than we initially suppose, you know. And, um, and I think that story which you see in lungs is also, um, we see that at the genetic level and development and on and on and on and on. And I think it’s only been confirmed, um, hugely, uh, with, uh, with modern DNA technology. You know, so when you think, you know, feathers arose to help animals fly, lungs arose to help animals live on land, all that’s not true. The traits we associate with the great revolutions in the history of life are never associated with the great revolution. They always arose before and were rebar repurposed and they Rose for some other,
and it’s the repurposing that we’re coming to understand how important that is over time with the evolution of life.
That’s correct. And that repurposing often takes different forms, surprising forms that we would never would have predicted, you know, until we collect the data, you know, so the repurposing of feathers from structures involved in thermoregulation or sexual reproduction to flight, you know, that all that took knowledge of the fossil record that’s been coming increasingly refined over recent years. The knowledge of lungs coming out and fish, you know, that we’re living in water, breathing, air and water. You know, when, um, for a variety of reasons, um, that shifted likewise the genes originally involved in making swim bladders and fish actually they got repurposed to make lungs. You know, repurposing is the, uh, is the story of evolution of life on earth. Um, and by repurposing, copying, duplicating, modifying, merging things together. Uh, we come up with new stuff. You know, the recipe for life is sort of repurposed over billions of years and these are the switches that are jumping all over the genome.
The selfish gene as you, as you call it, Richard docking calls the Dawkins calls with, these are the switches that are showing all of the reproducing themselves. There are some of those. Yes. So there’s their switches. Some of them are some jump around, some don’t. And so, um, so think about this way. Our genome has, uh, parts that have the information to code proteins. Okay. Those are the genes. Those are that 2%. Then a lot of this other stuff is stuff that’s turning on and off those genes telling, telling the cells when and where to make the right proteins to make a, an eye, a bone, a piece of skin, hair and so forth. Um, and it’s those switches that are important, you know, and then, and we can study those switches, um, in evolution to compare tissues of say a bird to a reptile, to an amphibian, to a fish.
Uh, we can do that in many different ways. One of the things that’s really interesting and it w your question referred to is that there are other parts of our genome that are always roiling that are always making copies of themselves and inserting elsewhere. So, um, there, uh, one of the most famous discoveries, uh, was, was, uh, in genetics was the discovery that certain parts of the genome can make copies of themselves and then jump to go elsewhere in the genome. And if you look at our own genome, in fact, much of it is composed of these, um, of these ancient, um, jumping genes that, um, you know, that, that, uh, that they actually about 50% of our genome, think about that five zero, 50% or it’s unit is made up of these jumping genes that have taken over, right? Well, it turns out a colleague here at Chicago and others, some at Utah, some at Stanford, so forth, uh, Cornell have, um, have been looking at this and they find that some of these switches have gotten trained and have gotten carried around the genome by being part of these jumping genes.
You know, so you had a mutation arrive in one place and then, you know, that jumping gene brought new switches all over the genome and you can ask, well, why is that important? Well, if I was to ask, you know, how is a skin cell different from a, a car, uh, a cell that makes cartilage and, or one that makes a retina, it’s not just one protein, it’s hundreds of proteins that make them different. Well, one way to get that kind of change is to have a mutation appear in one gene, right? And then have switches, have the switches that control that gene carried by jumping genes across the genome. So the way you can have like a proliferation of changes appear in one tissue, in one protein at one place, but then get carried across the genome. So it’s a way to get relatively dramatic change in a fairly short period of time. They’re relatively simple mechanisms. Um, but all of this underscores just how dynamic the genome is that’s going on inside the, you know, the 4 trillion cells of our own bodies right now as we talk,
this raises so many other questions, but I have the language that you use and that you’re constrained by, perhaps you might say is a language that sort of, uh, you know, controls moves about, makes, creates, it’s a language of, of, um, an actor upon things. Right? And I’m not getting into the, I’m not talking about like the, you know, the a creator, right? Intelligent design, but I, but I, I wonder if, do you ever feel you’re constrained by the language? Cause your whole goal of course is to educate people about how science works and about how evolution works. So I just, yeah,
I wonder if I think about that’s actually conscious. Um, I do think a design is a fine word to use for things that even been produced by random, uh, um, uh, entities acting over time because what you have is something that is, appears to be incredibly and is incredibly structured at one way, incredibly, you know, with complex networks inside it that are interrelated. Um, and that’s that you can talk to that as a design, but the designer is a set of processes that include a substantial random as well as some non-random components. So yeah, makes and design are words you can use, but they are words that, um, uh, I use when I described, I have a process that is number one, historical, uh, and number two, that includes a substantial random, uh, component, um, which is obviously [inaudible].
Yeah. And now here’s my goofy question. The randomness of evolutionary, um, of components. Randomness, evolutionary change. Um, you could see how, I can imagine how comic book writers could see how you could end up with superheroes.
Right, exactly. I mean the spider bite to change the world or you know, something, some other mutation within the cell that all of a sudden gives somebody the ability to have stronger skin. Yeah.
Oh yeah. Look at the Hulk ride. He had a mutation with a gamma rays or whatever it was. And if we didn’t have the Hulk, look at what you think, how the world would be different, you know. Um, no, I mean contingencies. Uh, you know, contingency is a big part of evolution, but it’s not the only part. You know, there are parts of evolution that are highly contingent and then there are other parts of their kind of Nan non-random in very specific ways. So, you know, that’s, and that’s another thing I tried to deal with in the book a bit cause it’s, you know, obviously one of the big debates, you mean like physics, like the possibility of things.
I’m thinking as much as you will think of it in the biological reference of that, that is that, uh, you know, we wouldn’t be here today if an asteroid didn’t wipe out the dinosaurs 65 and change million years ago, that these continue these events, you know, these contingent events, uh, create opportunities, uh, for new, for species to evolve in new ways. Um, and that, you know, Stephen, Jay Gould, uh, used to say that if you replayed the tape of life, you know, you know, starting 550 million years ago, um, and say contingently remove certain species that are very different, you know, that we’re, we have all these different contingent events that make our world look the way it does today. Um, and you know, and if know, and when you look at evolution, it’s hard to escape the importance of those sorts of things, but it’s also hard to escape the fact that, you know, different creatures evolve the same structures independently over and over again.
Um, and we see that at the level of, you know, the, the anatomy we can see at the level of cells. We also have level of genes. So there’s, there is something that’s substantially non-random about it as well. So when I talk about evolution in the role of chance and evolution, I, it’s basically I talk about loaded dice that there’s a, you know, that there is a contingent or a random component, but there’s also a component that is, uh, that loads the dice, that tilts the odds and in certain ways, in certain terms, certain ends and outcomes.
Right, right, right. As you’ve first done your science and written your science, uh, your peer reviewed science papers and later written these books in Hurfeish
the university, then you’re inefficient. And then, and then this
book, some assembly required, has your, what has happened with your thinking because you’re writing these as the science is changing at the same time, right? So what has happened with your thinking over this time last 10 years?
Well, each of these books becomes a big part of me. Um, and then they, they, so, so when you, when you do a book like this, um, you are, um, you begin with a certain set of, uh, stories that you want to tell. I begin with scientific narratives and human narratives that I want to tell. Um, but then, you know, it changes, it evolves and it evolves as you learn as a scientist. It evolves as you learn as a storyteller. Um, so my thinking has changed quite a bit over the years. I mean, the whole notion of scientifically thinking about the dynamism of the genome, um, that’s something that really wasn’t on my radar screen 10 years ago. Um, and so that’s become a very big part of it. The me thinking about viruses in this way, that’s something I didn’t think about 10 years ago.
Um, but you know, what’s constant in this is that when I write, and when I think about the, you know, science is done by people and people, you know, work hard, get lucky, fail, improve, learn from failures. I mean, these are human narratives. Um, and, and those I’m always a much more, having written, I’m actually much more in tuned to other people’s narratives more than I was before in a funny way. Um, I think about they’re not because I’m writing about them, but I just think about their personal stories. When I hear somebody give a, even a scientific seminar, you know, I, I see the humanity in it in a way that I wouldn’t have seen before or wouldn’t have a pre, I would maybe would have seen it, but wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but, um, you know, we all are a story.
We all have stories in our lives, you know, and, and, uh, and science is an outcome of that of, and it’s not, it’s never linear, you know, it’s never linear. It is always twists and turns and bends and go back and forth and all over. Um, and I’m much more in tuned to those than I was before. And also I’m much more attuned to how the science works that way. You know, that it doesn’t work in a linear narrative that it’s, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s has its own complex path, just like the history of life on earth.
Well, this book has full of those and it’s great. I mean, I love to learn about these scientists who were grappling with these ideas in many ways in the dark, right there in the dark about what’s actually going on. But they’re putting together these amazing ideas starting, I mean, not starting with, but you know, Darwin among them. But you all, you talk about, um, some of the women that have been a part of this and maybe we haven’t had their stories, now we’re hearing their stories more. Julia Platt, Barbara McClintock and then a woman that I got to interview and you know, Mary Claire King and the work that she’s done and she’s been recognized for it. But it’s amazing work.
It is amazing work. And her, her life story is amazing. And I had the huge privilege of being able to talk to her when I was writing the book for about half hour, 45 minutes about her life story. And, and the life story that had a huge size antic footprint to it. And, um, you know, it just, it’s such a privilege to be able to talk to these people and learn about these people, but also tell their stories. Um, and you mentioned Julia Platt, there’s one who very few people know. Um, she was a woman working in the mid 18 hundreds in, um, uh, originally at the university of Vermont and later at Harvard and she was really off the charts intelligent and really off the charts passionate about biology in particular, embryology, obviously going, you know, understanding how Oregon’s and bodies are built from egg to adult and she couldn’t get a PhD in the United States.
So she went to Germany to get a PhD. Um, you know, against all odds came back and it’s 18 hundreds, by the way. It came back, ended up working, um, in woods hole, the Marine biological laboratory in a laboratory that, you know, valued women’s work. And she found something really remarkable that ran counter to the time people thought that all organs in the body came from one of three sort of tissues that in early embryonic development. And she found that some bones in the skull don’t obey that easy rule. And so she published a paper on that and the main leaders in the field, basically, I mean, I don’t know how to say it other than like they dumped on her. They just like said no. And eventually one of the big leaders, uh, confirmed her results, um, and backed her up, but not until she was chased out of the field.
So she ended up writing a letter to David star Jordan, who was president of Stanford university at the time, literally begging for a job. She ended up having to leave science. And, uh, she ended up becoming, after leaving science, she moved to Pacific Grove, California, became mayor of Pacific Grove, California, and ended up in the 1920s saving Monterey Bay. You know, so science is losses, the world’s gain, I guess. And her scientific discovery was later confirmed and it was shown that a, that what she’d had discovered wasn’t big agents of our own development and our own evolutionary change. She was one of the people who led to the discovery of a tissue type called the neural crest, which is this huge tissue type, which is so very important for evolution and our own development. So, you know, you know, to tell those kinds of stories, it changes you when I, you know, changes, you mean the author, me, I, I had, you know, w I had, I known of her work, but when I read her life story that has now, pardon me, you know, it’s like, eh, likewise, Mary Claire King, likewise, you know, Lindmar Gulas likewise, you know, Barbara McClintock and others, you know, they, the story of these people who often work against all odds and in the process changed the way we think of the world.
You know, that’s, um, that’s powerful stuff. And just be able to be able to have the privilege of getting those stories out there as I did, as I tried to do in this book. Um, you know, it was just a great feeling. So just, I hope they gain traction.
Are you finding that, um, as more women are in science, uh, and as that, um, that patriarchy falls away, that different a shift in focus looking at, you know, estrogen rather than testosterone? Is movers looking at female bodies rather than just as male bodies? Is it changing the perception? Is it changing the ability of science to learn more and take a deeper, deeper understanding of what’s happening in evolution in this case?
Well, yeah, and in fact, where we really feel it most is in clinical studies, right? Cause in so much, you know, clinical biology is based on the male, right? Um, that, uh, you know, the having the other 50 and change percent, uh, represented is a, is, is, is not only, um, uh, interesting, but it’s incredibly important. Um, and so, and it’s been just a major gap in our knowledge. There’s no doubt that as we get more diverse as a, you know, as a community in science, um, that the kinds of questions that people ask, uh, get broader. You know, and you know, we all profit because of that. Uh, and we all have our blind spots, right? Every one of us, we walk around with blind spots. And the first as a scientist, the blind spots are often in the kinds of questions you ask, you know, and I’m loaded with those, right? As is everybody else in different ways. And so the more we can have a community that helps us get beyond our own blind spots, um, the more traction we can get, the more the broader our work becomes, you know? Um, and so we’re, we see it left and right, or there’s just no doubt about that. Well, that’s why I love telling these different kinds of stories in the book. Honestly,
you’re, I’m in this book and in your work, you’re explaining what we know and what we are discovering and how much we’re discovering as we understand ways to unpack the genome and, and get right down to the microscopic level and molecular level with DNA. What don’t we know? What are still some of the big black holes that you’re thinking about?
Well what we, you know, we still, there’s just so much we don’t know. I mean, you know, we really don’t know how a Oregon is built from genetic information. You know, I can give you a list of genes that are involved in bill and making an Oregon right in its development, um, and its evolution. But how all those genes and proteins work together to make a heart. Uh, we’re a long way from that. You know, we’re a long way from connecting the dots. We’re good at making lists right now. We have technologies that can show us, you know, every protein that’s made in a cell, every protein and gene that’s active in a tissue, we can really do. I can give you those lists, right? But how you go from a list to a body question marks, right? We are still struggling in the dark on these things.
Although we’re getting better, you have to begin with the list, right? So we’re privileged to have those lists, but we are not, we’re still a long way from going from a list to a blueprint to, you know, a recipe to a body. I mean it’s just, it’s that, it’s that much. Um, so I think that’s what the coming decades are going to be. And I think, you know, we’re going to find, you know, DNA is filled with mysteries. There’s still is all kinds of regions in, in our own genome. We don’t know what it’s doing, what they’re doing, why they’re there, why they vary in the way they do, um, in the ways that they do. So, you know, we’re just loaded with mysteries. Likewise in evolution. I can show you all kinds of areas in evolution where, you know, we should, we need to target understanding the origin of vertebrates, creatures with backbones and skulls.
You know, we have some fossils that show us, um, likely candidates of the kinds of ancestors that existed then. But really the devil’s in the details. We can use a whole lot more information there. Have you go ahead. Oh, no, no. So there’s, you know, the reason why I love being a scientist is because every time you find something new, you give yourself answers. But some of those answers include much more precise and broader questions. And that’s kind of the phase we’re seeing ourselves in now. And knowing all these fields, fossils and genes. Hmm. Hey, when you’re not doing this, do you do other things to keep your brain active? Like what are your hobbies? I love, um, my dad was a mystery thriller writer, so I love reading stories. Um, you know, I’m, I’m not a workout nut, but, um, but hiking, moving my body is very important to me.
So for my own ability to work as a scientist or a writer, teacher and so forth, I need to do some exercise. So I am, I’m pretty, uh, pretty religious about that. The, um, um, uh, you know, working in the field, I work in Antarctica and the Arctic. It is a very physical thing. So I do have to stay, you know, get in shape before we go a field expedition. So that, that actually helps me cognitively. I, I find, uh, I love cooking. I love eating, so it’s good. Like to work out cause I like to eat a lot and I was a cook. Uh, I’m not a very good dishes, doers, so I just, I’ll call, I’ll call out that right now. I like shopping, but I hate doing the dishes. Hey, where do you hike around Chicago. I have flats. Okay. So like, you know, I mean the staircases are our mountains, but I, um, uh, I used to run this Derrick and before we went to Antarctica last time at, you know, I used to, I live on the 16th floor of a high rise, so I would run up and down.
Um, that was my workout. But, um, we have a light like Lakeshore pats. There’s a really beautiful, and it goes on for 26 miles. It’s just gorgeous wood look goons. And the Lake is like an ocean though, you know, like an inland sea almost. Um, so that can be beautiful. And, and what’s nice about it is given where we are, the bird population changes and then it’s a great place to do birdwatching. So that’s also a nice way to do it. Get a little nature inside the city for me. Yeah, you can go up to the, uh, to the Arboretum. That’s in Highland park. Uh, that exactly. Exactly. Great Japanese garden up there. But now, you know, like birding too. I like, I like to connecting to the natural world. Even living in a city, it’s fun seeing, I saw [inaudible] Falcon the other day in the city, you know, that was like a high point of my week.
I’m sorry, I saw a snowy owl and then not this winter we had a mild winter, but last winter I saw snow out and that was fun. So yeah, things like that. What do you, what is it, I’ll end with this. What is your work? What is your work in Antarctica? I read a little bit about it, but also what, what are you learning about all this stuff? Evolution, the climate change, all these things. What are you learning when you go to Antarctica? So Antarctica, we’re specifically interested in the fossils there. So we’re going there because Antarctica is, you know, is sliced by mountain range called the trans in Arctic mountains. And those mountains, uh, have all kinds of rocks of different geological ages. It turns out one slice of those rocks, one layer is from a period of time period in which was called the middle Devonian, about 385 million years ago.
Those rocks were formed in ancient rivers in ancient, um, ponds and lakes 380 million years ago. Antarctica was a tropical rainforest. And that’s then that’s what those rocks were reflect. So what we’re after is that period of time understanding what did the world look like 385, 380 million years ago. Um, and this, these rocks in Antarctica are giving us a unique window to that. Um, we’re finding fossil fish, early sharks, uh, uh, relatives of, of limbed creatures. I mean, it’s, we’re basically looking at using that as a window into understanding how did life shift from water to land plants and vertebrates, uh, you know, our relatives, the relatives of fish and so forth. So that’s where we’re learning and it’s, um, you know, it’s a fairly grueling place to work, um, for the kind of work we do. Yeah. Because what you have is the ice plateau, which where we are is at about five or 6,000 feet.
And then a mountain range has poked through that. So we work on the mountaintops that are poking through the ice. So we snowmobile from mountain the mountain, set up camp, uh, climb all over the mountains looking for fossils. Yeah. How do you keep your fingers warm enough to be able to do the work you’re doing? You’ve got to be, yeah, you’ve got to be careful about that. Um, yeah, so I mean, I’ll get, you’ll get really cold as you can imagine. Um, yeah, wear gloves. Uh, you learn to, you learn to work with gloves, you learn to work with, uh, mittens. Um, you, you know, you could, you kind of, we’re a very adaptable species, I gotta say. And so, you know, you bring the right gear and you learn to use it. Um, just, uh, try not to leave your exposed, uh, your flesh exposed to the elements for too long.
Um, it’s, I mean, it’s sort of a problem because when I have a fossil, like when I’m, you know, removing a fossil from the rock, my preferred position is to lie down on the rock with my face, like three or four inches from the rocks. Right. You know, so I can really see what’s in there. That strategy doesn’t work very well in Antarctica unless I have like a big old pen. So I’ll bring a sleeping pad, you know, lay it down so I can use my strategy. But, um, you know, it’s things like that you have to adjust and accommodate.
That’s remarkable. Science is remarkable. You know, um, you, uh, you’re at the, the field museum, one of the greatest, if not the greatest of natural history museums. And I’ve been, I’ve been taking some time to go to different natural history museums and thinking about the, the lineage of those museums and the importance that they actually have to our understanding of the world. And yet for a while it seemed like we were abandoning those museums and the collections of eggs and the, the, the stuffed varieties of the varieties of birds that are stuffed or even the skeletal structures. And, and so you go to some of them you go, Oh, this is 19th century. I, I see the science of the 19th century here. But yet it’s, it’s actually very, it seems to me very powerful stuff that they were doing back then that connects to what we’re doing today. And I, I guess I just wonder how you think about the natural history museums of the world.
Oh, I think that theme is extraordinarily important. You know, resources, hubs of research, each museum, whether it’s the field museum, the American museum, the Smithsonian and so forth. Burke museum in Seattle museums are incredibly important. Number one, they are repositories of diversity and we’re losing diversity on this planet. And we have these institutions where we can understand diversity over time because people have been making these collections. And so you know, if we want to understand diversity and whether it’s genetic or anatomical cultural or what have you, museums are our real window to that. The other thing about museums, this is incredibly important and this has been a big part of my own life as well as many others in my field is the Kindle excitement. That is, there’s something about the power of objects when you see a dinosaur or a bird or you know, or an archeological artifact, there’s something so resonant and powerful about seeing those objects that can be captivating.
The high points of my school year when I was young were like the field, the museum trips, you know, and not only cause I got out of class for the day, well maybe largely for that, who knows. But I also loved the being in museums and seeing the mummies and the and the dinosaurs and so forth. And you know, and a lot of the, one of the reasons why I went into natural history was because of the passion for museums, that passion that museums kindled. So museums are also huge hubs for research and education. So it’s so many levels. You know, the, the museums that pepper our cities and universities and so forth, uh, have had incredible importance, but also continuing and likely increasing importance in the years ahead.
I was at the museum at the university of Iowa and, um, they have a nice little natural history museum there. And I was sitting there in a little girl with her dad walked up to this display of eggs. They have all these eggs from the smallest eggs to the largest eggs. And she just, she was, yeah, she didn’t say anything. She was just standing there staring at it. And, and this was seven maybe, and she just was enthralled by it. And I just thought this, this is the best argument, not just for museums, but the best argument for looking at the truths that science can bring us.
Yeah. And it’s the objects that have such power, right? I mean, it’s, um, you know, I mean, well, the first thing people ask when I, you know, would walk people through the dinosaur exhibits that ask, is it real? And when you could say to them, yeah, that’s a real dinosaur bone. Um, you know, there’s something magical about that, that emotional connection that they develop. You know, when people would come into my lab, uh, and I’d give him a tour of my laboratory and, you know, I have some fossils we work on here and we used to have a Tiktaalik RESILIA, which is the, uh, one of the creatures that is a great window into how life fall to walk on land. Um, I used to, you know, I used to have the humerus in my office before we returned it to Canada and I’d pull it out and say, here’s the original humorous of Tiktaalik. And you could just see the goosebumps appear in their, you know, on their boat, on their body. And then, and on mine too, you know, cause there’s something very powerful about objects, you know, and, um, and that’s what drove me to paleontology is that, you know, you, you can find objects that change the way we think about the natural world and our relationship to it, you know, doesn’t get better than that. Yeah. And the Burke has been remodeled and rebuilt and then very much, and you can watch the, uh, you can watch the scientists at work and talk to them as they’re working. And it’s, it’s just a wonderful experience to be able to be so close to that. Yeah, you’re lucky to have that in Seattle. All right, sir. I appreciate you taking the time.
My pleasure. Thank you. Thank you very much. Right. Take care. Thank you, sir. Bye. To learn more, get yourself a copy of Neil Shubin’s book some assembly required decoding the 4 billion years of life from ancient fossils to DNA. Thank you for listening to episode 59 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle bass band, EBU, and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. The recent coven 19 mandates to cancel events and public gatherings throughout Seattle has put a significant strain on the nonprofit community, including town hall. We know that it’s important to keep programming and creating engagement and educational opportunities for you, and we hope that you will consider extending your support. We need you now more than ever. So please make a donation online by clicking the link in the episode description below by texting town hall to four four three two one or by joining town hall as a member. And while we’re on heinous from public events, remember that we’re still programming events via live stream. Just go to our town hall, Seattle, YouTube channel, or visit us at town hall, seattle.org thank you for your support and thank you for joining us right here in the moment.