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1.4.5.11: The History of Biology - Biology

1.4.5.11: The History of Biology - Biology


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Learning Outcome

Discuss the history of the study of life

The history of biology traces the study of the living world from ancient to modern times. Although the concept of biology as a single coherent field arose in the nineteenth century, the biological sciences emerged from traditions of medicine and natural history reaching back to ayurveda, ancient Egyptian medicine and the works of Aristotle and Galen in the ancient Greco-Roman world. This ancient work was further developed in the Middle Ages by Muslim physicians and scholars such as Avicenna. During the European Renaissance and early modern period, biological thought was revolutionized in Europe by a renewed interest in empiricism and the discovery of many novel organisms. Prominent in this movement were Vesalius and Harvey, who used experimentation and careful observation in physiology, and naturalists such as Linnaeus and Buffon who began to classify the diversity of life and the fossil record, as well as the development and behavior of organisms. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek revealed by means of microscopy the previously unknown world of microorganisms, laying the groundwork for cell theory. The growing importance of natural theology, partly a response to the rise of mechanical philosophy, encouraged the growth of natural history.

Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, biological sciences such as botany and zoology became increasingly professional scientific disciplines. Lavoisier and other physical scientists began to connect the animate and inanimate worlds through physics and chemistry. Explorer-naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt investigated the interaction between organisms and their environment, and the ways this relationship depends on geography—laying the foundations for biogeography, ecology, and ethology. Naturalists began to reject essentialism and consider the importance of extinction and the mutability of species. Cell theory provided a new perspective on the fundamental basis of life. These developments, as well as the results from embryology and paleontology, were synthesized in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The end of the 19th century saw the fall of spontaneous generation and the rise of the germ theory of disease, though the mechanism of inheritance remained a mystery.

In the early twentieth century, the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work led to the rapid development of genetics by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students, and by the 1930s the combination of population genetics and natural selection in the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”. New disciplines developed rapidly, especially after James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the structure of DNA. Following the establishment of the Central Dogma and the cracking of the genetic code, biology was largely split between organismal biology—the fields that deal with whole organisms and groups of organisms—and the fields related to cellular and molecular biology. By the late twentieth century, new fields like genomics and proteomics were reversing this trend, with organismal biologists using molecular techniques, and molecular and cell biologists investigating the interplay between genes and the environment, as well as the genetics of natural populations of organisms.


Mechanisms of salinity tolerance

The physiological and molecular mechanisms of tolerance to osmotic and ionic components of salinity stress are reviewed at the cellular, organ, and whole-plant level. Plant growth responds to salinity in two phases: a rapid, osmotic phase that inhibits growth of young leaves, and a slower, ionic phase that accelerates senescence of mature leaves. Plant adaptations to salinity are of three distinct types: osmotic stress tolerance, Na(+) or Cl() exclusion, and the tolerance of tissue to accumulated Na(+) or Cl(). Our understanding of the role of the HKT gene family in Na(+) exclusion from leaves is increasing, as is the understanding of the molecular bases for many other transport processes at the cellular level. However, we have a limited molecular understanding of the overall control of Na(+) accumulation and of osmotic stress tolerance at the whole-plant level. Molecular genetics and functional genomics provide a new opportunity to synthesize molecular and physiological knowledge to improve the salinity tolerance of plants relevant to food production and environmental sustainability.


1.4.5.11: The History of Biology - Biology

The Biology of Skin Color: Black and White

The evolution of race was as simple as the politics of race is complex
By Gina Kirchweger

Ten years ago, while at the university of Western Australia, anthropologist Nina Jablonski was asked to give a lecture on human skin. As an expert in primate evolution, she decided to discuss the evolution of skin color, but when she went through the literature on the subject she was dismayed. Some theories advanced before the 1970s tended to be racist, and others were less than convincing. White skin, for example, was reported to be more resistant to cold weather, although groups like the Inuit are both dark and particularly resistant to cold. After the 1970s, when researchers were presumably more aware of the controversy such studies could kick up, there was very little work at all. "It's one of these things everybody notices," Jablonski says, "but nobody wants to talk about."

No longer. Jablonski and her husband, George Chaplin, a geographic information systems specialist, have formulated the first comprehensive theory of skin color. Their findings, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, show a strong, somewhat predictable correlation between skin color and the strength of sunlight across the globe. But they also show a deeper, more surprising process at work: Skin color, they say, is largely a matter of vitamins.

Jablonski, now chairman of the anthropology department at the California Academy of Sciences, begins by assuming that our earliest ancestors had fair skin just like chimpanzees, our closest biological relatives. Between 4.5 million and 2 million years ago, early humans moved from the rain forest and onto the East African savanna. Once on the savanna, they not only had to cope with more exposure to the sun, but they also had to work harder to gather food. Mammalian brains are particularly vulnerable to overheating: A change of only five or six degrees can cause a heatstroke. So our ancestors had to develop a better cooling system.

The answer was sweat, which dissipates heat through evaporation. Early humans probably had few sweat glands, like chimpanzees, and those were mainly located on the palms of their hands and the bottoms of their feet. Occasionally, however, individuals were born with more glands than usual. The more they could sweat, the longer they could forage before the heat forced them back into the shade. The more they could forage, the better their chances of having healthy offspring and of passing on their sweat glands to future generations.

A million years of natural selection later, each human has about 2 million sweat glands spread across his or her body. Human skin, being less hairy than chimpanzee skin, "dries much quicker," says Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Just think how after a bath it takes much longer for wet hair to dry."

Hairless skin, however, is particularly vulnerable to damage from sunlight. Scientists long assumed that humans evolved melanin, the main determinant of skin color, to absorb or disperse ultraviolet light. But what is it about ultraviolet light that melanin protects against? Some researchers pointed to the threat of skin cancer. But cancer usually develops late in life, after a person has already reproduced. Others suggested that sunburned nipples would have hampered breast-feeding. But a slight tan is enough to protect mothers against that problem.

During her preparation for the lecture in Australia, Jablonski found a 1978 study that examined the effects of ultraviolet light on folate, a member of the vitamin B complex. An hour of intense sunlight, the study showed, is enough to cut folate levels in half if your skin is light. Jablonski made the next, crucial connection only a few weeks later. At a seminar on embryonic development, she heard that low folate levels are correlated with neural-tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, in which infants are born without a full brain or spinal cord.

Jablonski and Chaplin predicted the skin colors of indigenous people across the globe based on how much ultraviolet light different areas receive. Graphic by Matt Zang, adapted from the data of N. Jablonski and G. Chaplin

Jablonski later came across three documented cases in which children's neural-tube defects were linked to their mothers' visits to tanning studios during early pregnancy. Moreover, she found that folate is crucial to sperm development -- so much so that a folate inhibitor was developed as a male contraceptive. ("It never got anywhere," Jablonski says. "It was so effective that it knocked out all folate in the body.") She now had some intriguing evidence that folate might be the driving force behind the evolution of darker skin. But why do some people have light skin?

As far back as the 1960s, the biochemist W. Farnsworth Loomis had suggested that skin color is determined by the body's need for vitamin D. The vitamin helps the body absorb calcium and deposit it in bones, an essential function, particularly in fast-growing embryos. (The need for vitamin D during pregnancy may explain why women around the globe tend to have lighter skin than men.) Unlike folate, vitamin D depends on ultraviolet light for its production in the body. Loomis believed that people who live in the north, where daylight is weakest, evolved fair skin to help absorb more ultraviolet light and that people in the tropics evolved dark skin to block the light, keeping the body from overdosing on vitamin D, which can be toxic at high concentrations.

By the time Jablonski did her research, Loomis's hypothesis had been partially disproved. "You can never overdose on natural amounts of vitamin D," Jablonski says. "There are only rare cases where people take too many cod-liver supplements." But Loomis's insight about fair skin held up, and it made a perfect complement for Jablonski's insight about folate and dark skin. The next step was to find some hard data correlating skin color to light levels.

Until the 1980s, researchers could only estimate how much ultraviolet radiation reaches Earth's surface. But in 1978, NASA launched the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer. Three years ago, Jablonski and Chaplin took the spectrometer's global ultraviolet measurements and compared them with published data on skin color in indigenous populations from more than 50 countries. To their delight, there was an unmistakable correlation: The weaker the ultraviolet light, the fairer the skin. Jablonski went on to show that people living above 50 degrees latitude have the highest risk of vitamin D deficiency. "This was one of the last barriers in the history of human settlement," Jablonski says. "Only after humans learned fishing, and therefore had access to food rich in vitamin D, could they settle these regions."

Humans have spent most of their history moving around. To do that, they've had to adapt their tools, clothes, housing, and eating habits to each new climate and landscape. But Jablonski's work indicates that our adaptations go much further. People in the tropics have developed dark skin to block out the sun and protect their body's folate reserves. People far from the equator have developed fair skin to drink in the sun and produce adequate amounts of vitamin D during the long winter months.

Jablonski hopes that her research will alert people to the importance of vitamin D and folate in their diet. It's already known, for example, that dark-skinned people who move to cloudy climes can develop conditions such as rickets from vitamin D deficiencies. More important, Jablonski hopes her work will begin to change the way people think about skin color. "We can take a topic that has caused so much disagreement, so much suffering, and so much misunderstanding," she says, "and completely disarm it."

(From Discover, Vol. 22, No. 2, February, 2001. Gina Kirchweger © 2001. Reprinted with permission of Discover. )


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