A long-heralded and especially interesting engagement last week involved the launch of the funded outcomes of the multi-agency Insect Pollinators Initiative of which we were a significant part (and for which we provided the secretariat). This initiative – part of the Living with Environmental Change programme – was developed in response to the recognition that bees and other insect pollinators may well be in decline. What their true dynamics are is something we need to keep monitoring, and their numbers certainly exhibit potentially alarming annual fluctuations. Consequently, given the huge influence of insects as pollinators of major crops (most fruit and veg, forage legumes such as beans, and oleogenic crops such as oilseed rape) – potentially worth over £440M p.a. at a primary level (much more, I suspect if our crops actually fail, since such estimates are based on the results of present productivity) – it was very timely to improve what turns out to be a rather meagre scientific understanding of the details. [...]
As already mentioned in my first blog, an increasing number of means now exist for putting out messages to selected (and especially self-selected) audiences. We already make our press releases and other material available via RSS feeds, as well as via the website. A comparatively recent innovation, which seems well suited for some of these purposes, is twitter. For those not already in the twitterverse, twitter allows brief 140-character ‘tweets’ (posts) that can be viewed by those who have chosen (signed up) to do so. BBSRC is @BBSRC and I am @dbkell. In its simplest form, the ramblings of other tweeters are seen by any tweeter only if they have signed up to follow them, so twittering can involve more of a fractured monologue than a dialogue. It does however allow all recipients to see the discourse ‘instantaneously’ and thereby capture the zeitgeist (for literature citations this has been called the citegeist…), possibly assisting the generation of the supposed Wisdom of Crowds (and at least access to one’s readership). [...]
That genetic differences account for a substantial part of biological variability is hardly in dispute, and the inclusion of genetics (and increasingly molecular genetics) was arguably the key contribution that created neo-Darwinism and led to the ‘modern synthesis’ of evolutionary theory.
Selective breeding programmes amply illustrate the contribution to the phenotype that can be effected by genetic variation. Thus in a very nice summary, Hill (2005) describes an experiment at the University of Illinois (Laurie et al. 2004) that has been running since 1896. In this experiment, scientists have selected (and bred) strains of maize (corn) that are either high or low in the content of oil in their kernels (a trait of considerable agronomic importance). Over the years, the initial 5% oil has changed to 20% in the high-oil lines, and has decreased almost to zero in the low-oil strains. (A similar experiment using protein as the trait of interest gave a similar result, save that the ‘low-protein’ lines retain about 5% of protein.) Genetic analysis (of the quantitative trait loci) showed that a great many parts of the genome contributed this variation in oil content, that the largest could account for a difference of only 0.3% in oil content, and most accounted for just 0.1 – 0.2%. Given this, it is possibly unsurprising that these (small) effects were seen as additive (i.e. independent); put another way, there was negligible epistasis observed in these populations in which all other genes were also segregating. [...]