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Darwin's finches illustration
Summer 2018

Another look at Darwin’s finches

Darwin developed key aspects of his theory of evolution while pondering finches from the Galapagos Islands. It’s only fitting that reproductive biologist Michael Skinner would choose those same islands to propose a Lamarckian idea—that environment can directly impact inheritance of physical traits.

In this case, the process is driven by epigenetics, he says. “If we think about evolution, we can’t simply think of genetics. We also need to think about epigenetics.”

According to Skinner, epigenetic mutations occur 1,000 times more frequently than do genetic mutations and could help explain why new species emerge more often than expected.

“The reason epimutations exist might be to dramatically … » More …

Summer 2018

Evolution evolution

In a word, Michael Skinner is tenacious. Growing up on a ranch outside Pendleton, the former Eagle Scout and college wrestler learned early on that you don’t back down from a little head-butting or controversy. It’s all just part of the game.

The trait has served Skinner ’82 PhD well over the years and enabled him to persevere through the fallout of a chance discovery in his reproductive biology lab in the 1990s. The unexpected findings threw 200 years of scientific ideology into question and initiated a paradigm shift in the understanding of inheritance and evolution. They also sparked a wave of outrage and … » More …

Craig Morris
Winter 2013

Of mice, men, and wheat

Although varieties abound, wheat can be more simply considered as either hard or soft, hardness being a measure of the kernel’s resistance to crushing.


All wheat originally was soft-kerneled. And there is, so far as we know, no evolutionary advantage to either the hard or the soft trait.

But clearly, somewhere along the line, that section of genetic material that determines the hardness of the kernel underwent a random mutation. Specifically, the Puroindoline a or Puroindoline b genes, which have long been a focus of Craig Morris’s research.

In order to understand the hard/soft divide, Morris, a plant physiologist, suggests that we consider the … » More …

Illustration of Titan's atmosphere
Fall 2012

Looking for life’s origins in the clouds of a moon

On the eleventh floor of the Webster Physical Sciences Building, Carol Turse watches over an array of glass tubes, flasks, and electrodes buzzing with 45,000 volts of electricity. Looking out the window, she takes in one of the better views of Pullman and the Palouse hills; looking inside the glasswork of her lab, she sees the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and if all goes right, elements of life in the making.

With clouds and a thick, planet-like atmosphere, Titan is unique among the moons in our solar system. It might also be conducive to creating amino acids, the building blocks of life, which … » More …

Winter 2011

An evolutionary myth is dismissed

Even though a paper on guppy senescence by evolutionary biologist Donna Holmes and her colleagues has circulated for several years, the “grandmother hypothesis” still persists.

And understandably so. One of those rare feel-good stories from evolutionary theory, the grandmother hypothesis attempts to explain menopause in humans as an evolutionary adaptation. Menopause is adaptive, the argument goes, in the sense that women’s reproductive capacity is cut short barely two-thirds of the way through their lives so that the grandmother can help raise the grandchildren, thereby improving the survival of her lineage.

In spite of its appeal, however, “I’ve always thought that was a dumb theory,” … » More …

Spring 2011

New threats, new science

Sure, Darwin had to battle seasickness aboard the HMS Beagle, and he spent nearly five years getting to and from the Galapagos Islands, and it took another 23 years to incorporate his findings into his seminal work on evolutionary biology.

But at least he lived in a slow-motion world of ship travel and isolated, slowly evolving species. Today, a scientist, or an exotic parasite for that matter, can get from London to the Galapagos in 24 hours. The parasite can start changing the biology of a place almost overnight. The scientist will have trouble keeping up.

Jeb Owen has seen as much, not by visiting … » More …

A Conversation about Art and Biology with Ellen Dissanayake '57

Ellen Franzen Dissanayake came to Washington State College from Walla Walla in 1953 as a music major. At the time, undergraduates were required to take four science classes. After taking the legendary BioSci 101 from Winfield Hatch and Human Physiology from Donald S. Farner, she found it easy to “think biologically,” which influenced her subsequent interest in the evolutionary origins of the arts.

At graduation, she married fellow student and zoologist John Eisenberg, and they moved to Berkeley, where he would attend graduate school. He was well on his way to becoming a prominent mammalian ethologist and was a rich source of thinking on behavior … » More …