LIFE and a Love of Evolution

Originally posted on LIFE Apps science blogging platform…

 

G’day guys! My name is Jordan. I’m a graduate bioengineer and a first year PhD student researching sustainable plant-based nanomaterials at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN). I am intensely interested in all aspects of evolution, from the origins of life, to the development of humanity, to artificial selection in agriculture and dog breeding. I’m a passionate advocate for science, science communication, health, fitness, optimism and mindfulness.

Genesis of Genetics Interest

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” – Theodosius Dobzhansky

Like most students, I didn’t really have any idea of what I wanted to do with my life or career when I was in high school. But I did know that it would have something to do with genetics. I remember learning early on that every cell in our body contains millions of ‘letters’ of genetic code that come together to form the blueprint of a human, and that this variable blueprint is also responsible for individual differences between each and every one of us. While classmates around me were falling asleep, overwhelmed with the complexity of nature, my mind was expanding with the possibilities of genetics.

The more I learned about genetics, the more I realized how little I knew, about the intricacies of cancer and other complex diseases, environmental influences that mediate changes in gene expression via epigenetics, and genetic fluidity over time due to evolution by natural selection. Sometimes science can be beautiful in its simplicity, but in the case of genetics, it’s beautiful in its complexity.

The challenge of communicating about genetics is to provide a platform high enough for readers to stand on and observe the genetic machinery while also developing an appreciation for the overall complexities of nature. Meanwhile, the field evolves in real time around us. Genetics and evolution are all too easily misinterpreted, which calls for genetic communicators to be able to distill complex knowledge and convey it in a relatable, digestible way.

Evolution for LIFE

In my LIFE Apps blog “LIFE: Through the Lens of Evolution” I will present aspects of everyday life that are underpinned by evolutionary processes and explain them using metaphors, analogies and experimental case studies. For example, why do we age, as opposed to evolving towards immortality? What is the evolutionary basis for allergies? How has artificial selection of plants initiated human civilization and greatly improved our overall health? All will be answered throughout the evolution of this blog!

My Research Focus

Genetics and evolution often intersect in my own training in chemical engineering. Beer brewing would have to be the most prominent example. Different strains of microorganisms are used to create different types of beer, and engineers tightly control the evolution of these strain to optimize fermentation and ensure quality in their end products. Evolution in chemical engineering also applies to the production of biopharmaceuticals, biofuels and cell and tissue biomaterials.

I’m about two months into a PhD program now, researching the drought-adapted properties of arid grasses and how we can isolate nano-scale cellulose fibres from their biomass. Cellulose is the material that makes up the majority of paper and cardboard. When cellulose bundles get separated (fibrillated) into nanocellulose fibres, the thin fibres have more surface area for fibre-fibre interactions, greatly increasing the strength of the material. Think of the Mythbuster’s episode where two phone books overlapped page-by-page could only be separated by two military tanks.

Desert grasses evolved in ways that can help us sustainably produce nanocellulose fibre materials. Evolutionary adaptations that helped these grasses better hold onto water under drought conditions also enable us to separate their cellulose fibre bundles with lower chemical and energy input.

Nanocellulose materials could become a future plastic alternative, or a strength additive in a wide range of different materials including latex for condoms and rubber gloves, concrete, polyurethane foam and recycled cardboard boxes. My project will use the genetic toolbox of different drought resistant varieties of the cereal crop sorghum to tailor the performance and sustainability of fabricated nanocellulose materials.

On with LIFE:

I’m really excited to be on this biological journey of life, but also on this journey with you and LIFE Apps to explain intriguing and surprising examples of evolution in everyday life. I’m more than happy to cover requested topics on evolution, so feel free to suggest any ideas you’re interested in!

Yours in science,

Jordan

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