Giving meaning to life: genes, environment and evolution | MSU Today

Michigan State University researchers shed light on evolutionary mystery with the support of a $ 1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health: how come that within one species, could individual responses to stimuli differ significantly?

Assistant Professor MSU Emily Josephs

“Often when you see this variation there are two possible reasons,” said Emilie Joseph, assistant professor at MSU. “It could be genetic differences or environmental differences. “

Understanding the root of this variation in humans would be invaluable from a health perspective and help explain why some people are prone to certain illnesses while family members or neighbors are not. It’s easier said than done.

“You can’t just clone a bunch of humans, put them in different environments and see what happens,” Josephs said.

But you can grow genetically identical plants, which share the same environments as humans and are subject to many of the same evolutionary forces. They also lend themselves to experiments where researchers control genetics and growing conditions – experiments Josephs will lead with the new NIH grant.

Josephs works in the Department of Plant Biology in the College of Natural Sciences and MSU AgBioResearch in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and is an essential member of the Ecology, evolution and behavior program. She and her team will work not only to disentangle genetic phenomena from environmental factors, but also to understand how evolution shapes the two.

One photo shows several leafy green plants growing in a black planting box.

Emily Josephs from MSU and her team will study Arabidopsis plants, like the one shown here, to explore how genetically identical organisms respond to different environments. Credit: Sophia Buysse

“MSU is a great place to be a plant biologist. We have a wonderful community of plant biologists and a lot of resources, ”said Josephs. “But we also have a very good evolutionary biology program. I find myself at the overlap of the Venn diagram of these amazing communities.

It can be easy to think of evolution as something that ancient organisms did to populate the planet with the diversity of living things present today. But all of this life, including humanity, is still evolving.

At the same time, environments are changing in ways – and at speeds – that humans have never seen before. Josephs’ research will address the evolutionary reasons why individuals differ in how they respond to these changes.

Type 2 diabetes is one example where humanity sees these changes and differences playing a role today. This is a condition where the body has difficulty regulating its blood sugar and its prevalence increases. Type 2 diabetes is linked to diet and activity levels, which can be influenced by a person’s environment.

“For example, we now work in environments where we can walk down the hall and buy a packet of M & M’s whenever we want,” Josephs said. People live in a range of different environments, but they also respond to these environments differently due to their genetics.

Members of the Josephs Lab are studying plants to understand why there is genetic variation for the environmental response. These plants are able to produce offspring genetically identical to each other.

Researchers can then grow these plants in different environments and compare what they observe with mathematical models of evolution to see which theories are most accurate under certain conditions. From there, developing links to human health will take time, but these studies can provide a solid foundation on which to build.

“It’s important to understand how things came into being and why things are the way they are,” Josephs said. “It gives us a better idea of ​​why the world is the way it is.”


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