Where’d You Get Those Peepers?

Guelph biologist finds an audience for evolutionary tales about eyes

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Call it the evolution of a public talk. What began as a lecture by integrative biology professor Ryan Gregory to mark the 2009 Darwin year has turned into an ongoing series on evolution topics for a Cambridge-area audience. The evolutionary biologist’s “fireside chats” are delivered in a former saloon that’s now home to a nature reserve on the Grand River.

“Where’d You Get Those Peepers?” is the title of his June 23 talk about the evolution of the eye and other complex organs, beginning at 7 p.m., at the Rare Charitable Research Reserve.

Few people have trouble accepting that bacterial populations such as methicillin-resistant “superbugs” evolve resistance to new drugs thrown at them. Suggest that similar mechanisms explain complex structures like wings or eyes, and you’re often met with confusion or skepticism, says Gregory. “Complex structures like the eye can and have evolved.”

He was amazed at the amount of information he uncovered ─ from developmental biology to molecular genetics to paleontology ─ while writing a review on the topic published in 2008 in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

This month, he’ll discuss some of that evidence, including:

  • imperfections such as the inverted retina and the eye’s blind spot;
  • less complex modern eyes ─ pigment cups, eyespots, pinhole eyes ─ suggest how intermediate versions could have developed;
  • eye proteins were likely co-opted from related molecules performing other functions; and
  • a “master gene” regulates eye development across a wide range of animals, as demonstrated by scientists who transplanted a mouse gene into fruit flies and caused fly eyes to develop at those sites.

Last year in Cambridge, Gregory spoke about Charles Darwin to mark the bicentennial of the natural historian’s birth. Earlier this year, he spoke on how evolution is depicted, and often misinterpreted, in images and illustrations.

Along with Guelph colleagues, Gregory organized last year’s Darwin-themed art exhibit and a symposium on campus. In the past six months, he has discussed evolution with various groups, including the Unitarian Church, the Kiwanis Club and the Toronto Centre for Inquiry.

He expects to return to Rare for further talks. Referring to his third-year evolution course, he says: “I’ve got 30 hours’ worth of lectures.

“I believe the public appreciates effort by experts in a particular area to share knowledge and enthusiasm about what they do,” says Gregory, who studies the evolution of genome sizes. “I think understanding why things are the way they are and how the world works is a fundamentally exciting enterprise.”

For this biologist, that sentiment crosses boundaries and oceans. Last month he spoke to an elementary school class in Livingstone, Zambia, where his father and stepmother run a non-profit performing arts foundation. Now back in Guelph, Gregory is forging connections between students in Livingstone and here in Canada ─ perhaps through Earth Rangers, a biodiversity education organization for which he serves as a science adviser.

While in Africa, Gregory also visited Kenya to help launch the Health Barcode of Life project, for which he is international scientific co-ordinator. This initiative, which will use genetic information to track biting insects and the diseases they carry, is part of the International Barcode of Life project led by U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.