Helmreich’s article “Seas and Trees…” reminds me of a conflict that my former colleagues at the University of Chicago had to contend with as they attempted to put out publications before I left. We were (still are!) in a troublesome position where our direct competitor in the field of early pattern formation and evolutionary comparisons in flies is also the person with the greatest power over our review process, we also happen to be running contrary to the mathematical biologists constructing the phylogenetic trees that Helmreich describes. The lab’s desire to construct evolutionary narratives using both phenotypic comparisons as well as the more favored molecular computations on sequenced genetic material position us in a realm of evolutionary complexity that present mathematic modelers are unable or unwilling to contend with. In much the same way that comparative looks at the proto-life of Archaea become complicated by the issue of gene transmission trans-generationally our lab had to reconstruct mechanisms whereby our phenotypic comparisons and resulting conclusions reoriented the existing trees to contain the possibility of evolutionary losses of function and subsequent reintroduction of phenotypes in divergent species based upon some historical gene scaffolding.

While we typically consider that lateral gene transfer occurs only in populations of bacteria, are there more directed activities by humans that accomplish the equivalent and even push the limitations of genus gene transference. Two items come to mind. The first is the power within the techniques and tools of biotechnology allowing chimeric forms of new life to emerge: bacteria eat petroleum spilled over a bay, mice develop human compatible ears on artificial scaffolding embedded subdermally, a frog becomes the origin of a “victimless” steak (http://www.abc.net.au/arts/digital/stories/s877305.htm), or perhaps Adam might eventually transgenically insert the gene for spicy wasabi into food grade tuna. The second, and perhaps more interesting and intransient, is the thought that the future looks bright for new gene therapies that can alter the genome of our favorite species, Homo sapiens. If willing to get beyond our trepadations for altering germ line cells the insertion of an extra copy of growth hormone or the deletion of an unpleasant “maladaptive” feature will seemingly mimic the lateral gene transfer of Helmreich’s account. Can we ignore a further future of cheap biotech tools and extensions of bioart to introduce those beautiful fluorescent proteins (http://www.microscopyu.com/galleries/fluorescence/cells/u2/u2large.html) coloring the actions of molecular biologists into our own lives?