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6 Research Stories to Revisit this Darwin Day

6 Research Stories to Revisit this Darwin Day

In honor of Darwin Day, we round up six popular College of Natural Sciences stories that showcase concepts in evolution. 

Scientists the world over celebrate on International Darwin Day, the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose treatise on natural selection, On the Origin of Species, was published more than 150 years ago. His theory provides a unifying foundation for all branches of biology. 

Here are a few examples of natural selection and evolution in action.

1. A common ancestor to yeast and humans left a mark. 

Despite a billion years of evolution separating humans from yeast, hundreds of genes from a common ancestor live on nearly unchanged in both species, according to a team of UT Austin scientists led by Edward Marcotte, professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. 

The researchers created hundreds of strains of humanized yeast by inserting a single human gene into each and turning off the corresponding yeast gene. They observed which new strains of yeast thrived—nearly half of the yeast survived fine when one gene of theirs became human. The takeaway: despite hundreds of millions of years of evolution, certain groups of genes are surprisingly stable over evolutionary time. 

The research, published last May in the journal Science, has practical applications, too: humanized yeast can help researchers better understand genetic disorders and more.

2. Some fish adapted to life in the open ocean by becoming able to turn invisible. 

Scientists solved a longstanding mystery about how some fish hide from predators in the open waters of the ocean, a discovery that could help materials scientists and military technologists create more effective methods of ocean camouflage. 

Researcher Parrish Brady and Professor Molly Cummings of the Department of Integrative Biology led a multi-institution team which reported in a November issue of Science that certain fish use microscopic structures called platelets in their skin cells to reflect polarized light. The adaptation allows the fish to seemingly disappear from their predators.

3. Mass extinctions may speed up evolution (at least if you're a robot).

UT Austin computer scientists Risto Miikkulainen and Joel Lehman found that robots evolve more quickly and efficiently after a virtual mass extinction modeled after real-life disasters, such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs. The robot survivors of these disasters came up with more creative solutions more quickly compared to a group that didn't survive a virtual near wipe-out. 

Beyond its implications for artificial intelligence, the research supports the idea that mass extinctions actually speed up evolution by unleashing new creativity in adaptations. The study was published in August in the journal PLOS One.

4. Corals are already adapting to global warming.

Some coral populations already have a way to evolve tolerance to warm ocean waters, but it requires coral from cooler waters to have more offspring with coral from warmer waters. Humans can help to spread these genes, according to the team of scientists that discovered the adaptation. 

The discovery has implications for many reefs now threatened by global warming and shows for the first time that mixing and matching corals from different latitudes may boost reef survival. The findings were published by Mikhail Matz, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and his colleagues in a June issue of Science.

​5. Worms evolved a way to move around using a sensor that can detect magnetic fields.

A UT Austin team of neuroscientists and engineers identified the first sensor of the Earth's magnetic field in an animal, finding in the brain of a tiny worm a big clue to a long-held mystery about how animals' internal compasses work. Although animals as diverse as migrating geese, sea turtles and wolves are known to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field, until now, no one had pinpointed quite how they do it. 

Jon Pierce-Shimomura, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience, and his team published their findings in June in the journal eLife.

6. Some prairie vole males adapted to be faithful, and others didn't. 

Natural selection drives some male prairie voles to be fully monogamous and others to seek more partners, neurobiologist Stephen Phelps discovered. The surprising contrasts in the animals' brains result from differences in their DNA, as Phelps and his colleagues explained in a December paper published in Science.

Darwin Day Events

Darwin Day festivities around the world not only highlight the eminent scientist's achievements, but also encourage intellectual curiosity and promote the advancement of science and education.


Saturday, February 13, 2016 • Noon–5 p.m.

The Center for Inquiry-Austin, in collaboration with the Texas Memorial Museum, Environmental Science Institute and others, will host a Darwin Day event at the UT Commons Learning Center at the JJ Pickle Research Campus.

Festivities will include presentations for children, enlightening speakers and fun activities. Several faculty and staff from the college will be presenting at this free event.

More details


On the Forty Acres, you can see Darwin's work up close, from a handwritten note in a first edition of his most famous book to specimens he collected while doing field work.


Find a Darwin Day event near you here.

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