Florida, Where The Living Is Contradictory

When it comes to evolution, the nation’s attention is focused these days on Dover, Pennsylvania, where parents are suing the local board of education for introducing creationism into the classroom. It’s certainly an important case, but if you really want to get a sense of what’s at stake in the struggle over evolution, I suggest you turn your attention south, to the sunshine state. Florida is trying to have it both ways when it comes to creationism, and sooner or later something’s going to have to give.

Two weeks ago, governor Jeb Bush broke ground on what he has called “a defining moment in Florida’s future.” The Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s premier biomedical institutions, has agreed to build a huge east-coast campus in Palm Beach. Bush and his fellow Florida politicians had lobbied hard for Scripps to come to their state, because they expect it to be a vast economic boon. Thousands of people work at Scripps, investigating everything from regenerating nerve cells to potential cures for AIDS. It gets lots of money from the National Institutes of Health and other sources to pay all those taxpayers. On top of these attractions, Scripps has spun off dozens of start-up biotech companies around its main campus near San Diego. At the same time, it has attracted other companies to set up shop nearby, further vitalizing the southern California economy. Governor Bush hopes that Scripps East will do the same for Florida. It’s predicted to bring over three billion dollars to the community.

It’s a simple fact that when you bring such a leading player in biological research to your state, you bring a major dose of evolution as well. Evolution is part of the foundation of modern biological research, and the work at Scripps is no exception.

For years Scripps has fostered some of the most ambitious investigations of evolution. At the lab of Paul Schimmel, for example, scientists investigate the evolution of the genetic code: the way in which the sequence in our DNA gets translated into proteins. Gerald Joyce and his colleagues investigate the theory that DNA-based life evolved from a simpler precursor some 4 billion years ago. Floyd Romesburg studies how the structures and functions of proteins have evolved over billions of years, using rapidly changing antibodies as a model. While these scientists are trying to understand what happened to life in the distant past, their work is also serving as the seeds for new start-up companies that hope to make money on new kinds of biological molecules.

Evolutionary biology also helps guide medical research at Scripps. Some researchers study how resistance to drugs evolves in HIV and bacteria. Last year scientists made some important progress in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria by discovering how to prevent the microbes from evolving.

Claes Wahlestedt, one of the scientists who will be setting up shop on Scripp’s Florida campus, searches for new drugs by understanding how the human genome evolved. Genes only become active in our cells when certain proteins lock onto small stretches of DNA near them called enhancers. The enhancer bends until it meets up with another piece of DNA called a promoter. That bending acts like a switch, turning on the gene, allowing it to produce a protein. The elements of these switches are very hard to pinpoint in the human genome. That’s because they are very short and are located hundreds or thousands of positions away from the gene they control. Making matters worse, they are usually nestled within long stretches of DNA that don’t appear to serve any function. Finding these switch elements could prove very important to medicine. A mutation to a switch may make people prone to certain diseases or respond poorly to certain medicines.

Wahlestedt is finding these promoters, and it’s evolution he’s using as his guide. He and his colleagues described their approach in an open-access paper published earlier this year in the journal BMC Genomics. They lined up the sequences of human genes with their corresponding genes in mice. They then looked near the genes, in the long sequence of non-coding DNA, searching for short stretches of DNA that were similar in both species. Their reasoning was this: if a piece of non-coding DNA in the common ancestor of humans and mice didn’t serve an important function, it might pick up mutations over time without causing any harm. As a result, most non-coding sequences should be noticeably different in humans and mice, because we share an ancestor that lived some 100 million years ago. But switches probably played a vital role in that common ancestor, and most mutations that struck them would have had a devastating effect. Natural selection should have prevented most of these mutations from becoming fixed in both humans and mice. As a result, parts of DNA involved in switching genes on and off should look very similar in humans and mice, unlike the other non-coding DNA.

Wahlestedt and his colleagues used this method to identify a number of candidate switches. Further tests confirmed that most of them actually did affect the way genes work. And still more tests showed that humans carry different versions of these switches, and that these differences affect the way that these genes make proteins. If Wahlestedt had used creationism as his guide, he’d still be floundering in an ocean of DNA.

In other words, Jeb Bush is bringing evolution into Florida. But you have to wonder if he knows what he’s doing. That’s because in addition to bringing Scripps to Florida, he’s bringing in a creationist to run his schools.

In August, Bush appointed Cheryl Yecke as his state chancellor of K-12 education. In her previous job, Yecke had served as Minnesota’s state education commissioner. A self-proclaimed creationist, she had said she wanted to get science classes to discuss “a higher power creating life alongside evolution.” Major science organizations, such as the American Institute of Biological Sciences were appalled. Yecke lost the post after a year, but Bush decided she was the right woman for the job in Florida.

Yecke has company in the sunshine state. The chair of the state House Education Council favors teaching intelligent design, and recently introduced a bill that he said would allow students to sue their professors if they didn’t consider it in class. Science standards are up for review next year in Florida, and as this article in yesterday’s Palm Beach Post explains, some observers won’t be surprised if a Kansas-style battle erupts.

How does Jeb Bush handle this contradiction? How does he explain simultaneously embracing evolution-based cutting edge biology and hiring a creationist to run his schools? Florida newspapers are discovering that his solution is simply to avoid the issue altogether.

This summer, for example, reporters approached the governor after he attended a meeting about Florida’s science standards. They asked him if intelligent design should be taught. As the Saint Petersburg Times reported in August, he declined to comment. Later, the Times asked his education commissioner, and he declined too.

Last week Bush was asked again about whether he believes, like his brother, that intelligent design belongs in science classes.

“I don’t know…I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not part of our standards. Nor is creationism. Nor is Darwinism or evolution either.”

That’s wrong. Natural selection and other evolutionary processes are part of the science standards. When Bush was informed of this, he blamed his education commissioner for misleading him. ”I like what we have right now,” he added. “And I don’t think there needs to be any changes. I don’t think we need to restrict discussion, but it doesn’t need to be required, either.”

When pressed further about these contradictions, Bush simply clammed up, as the Miami Herald reported yesterday:

“That is so loaded. That’s like, you’ve already written the article, why do you want me in it? It’s not fair,” Bush told a reporter when asked.

So that’s a ”no” then?

”No, that’s nothing,” Bush said. “That’s no comment. The governor refused to comment. That’s what it is in the article: The governor refused to comment.”

It’s possible that Bush is trying to run out the clock before he’s forced to say something coherent about evolution and creationism. After all, his term ends next year, so any fallout from a fight over school standards may just wind up as the next governor’s problem.

Claes Wahlestedt is frankly baffled by the hostility to evolution in his newly adopted home of Florida. “All our work at Scripps gives evidence of the existence of evolution,” he told the Palm Beach Post yesterday.

I don’t know how long Florida will be able to go on this way, trying to attract the biotech industry while its leading state officials try to teach its students that creationism is an equally valid way of understanding life. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

Update: 10/9 6:30 pm Fixed description of promoters. Thanks to John TImmer for sending me back to my bio textbook.