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“Most everything that we use in medicine has some root in the natural world.Evolution over 3.5 billion years of life has done the experiment—everything we need is probably out there in some form or another.” The solution was obvious to no one but Harris Lewin.
Just how did a kid from New York City who failed to get into veterinary college come to lead the largest project in the history of science, not so incidentally making Davis the seat of this coming scientific revolution?
The first thing to know about Harris Lewin is that he loves dairy cows.
“I mean, what they eat, turning this low-quality forage into protein with a microbial fermentation vat in their gut,” marvels the UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, “then putting out massive quantities of milk—I just needed to understand the biology of this animal.” That was in 2009, only six years after a global consortium of geneticists completed the Human Genome Project, a Herculean effort to parse all 20,500 of mankind’s genes, including the handful that make you different from a monkey, a fruit fly or a yeast colony (you might be surprised to learn that you’re closely related to the latter). “I quickly came up against the limitations of there not being enough [different species’] genomes sequenced for me to understand how genome evolution works,” he says.
You see, evolutionary geneticists learn how life works by comparing one genome to another and observing the similarities and differences.
“I began to think, ‘Well, what would it take to sequence ?
’ ” The idea was conceived about three years ago, when he was chatting back and forth with two of his peers, W.
[He] suddenly had this brainstorm: ‘Why don’t we do it all? “This project could be something that’s transformative for science and society.” The three found common cause among endeavors they were working on in parallel.
Lewin had been involved in Genome 10K, an effort to sequence vertebrates, while Robinson was part of i5K, which aimed to sequence the genomes of insects.
The remit is broad, moving from the fruiting bodies of slime moulds to wealth inheritance in humans, but this [is] done almost seamlessly, demonstrating the power of evolutionary theory.
In Social Behaviour, some of the world's leading researchers do an excellent job of synthesising the huge progress that has been made over especially the last 50 years.