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Thursday, May 30, 2024

DNA of UCD: Jonathan Eisen

If you’ve ever wondered if a certain drug would make that biology lab class a little more bearable, you’re not alone. Evolutionary biologist and UCD professor Jonathan Eisen found the prospect all too entertaining, producing a fake study on the issue as an April fool’s joke.

But when he’s not pulling pranks on the science community he manages to delve into the microscopic world of evolution and ecology offering both the community and his students a diverse and broad width of knowledge.


What do you teach at UC Davis?

This year I co-taught the first offering of BIS2C, the third quarter in the new Introductory Biology series. After two years working on the design of this course it was good to finally get it taught. I will be teaching this again next fall.

In addition, I teach an upper level course on microbial evolution which was offered as an EVE198 class and will probably have a new EVE number next time it is offered. Also I give some lectures for some medical microbiology and immunology classes here and there, as I have a split appointment between EVE and MMI.


And what do you research here?

I study how microbes evolve new functions and how we can use that knowledge to understand how microbes function in the world around us. Most of the time I study this by sequencing the genomes of microbes and then using computational methods to analyze the genome data. I am particularly interested in two specific scientific topics these days: how microbes survive and thrive in extreme environments and how microbes function as symbionts of animals.


What did you study in college?

Initially, I was an East Asian Studies major (at Harvard) with a background interest in biology. Then I took a cool introductory course on evolution from Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionary biologist, and I switched to a biology major with a focus on evolution and ecology.

After working for a year in the lab I had worked in as an undergraduate, I then went to do my Ph.D. at Stanford in biological sciences. Initially I worked on butterfly population biology, but I switched to studying how mutations originate and how differences in mutation processes between species affect how those species evolve. I dabbled in studying genomes of microbes then and once I got my Ph.D., I got a faculty job at the place that helped launch the field of genomics (The Institute for Genomic Research).


What is the most interesting aspect of science you have studied?

Being the first person to glimpse the entire genetic make up of a particular species was and still is a thrill.


What is your favorite ecosystem?

Hydrothermal vents in the bottom of the ocean where the entire ecosystem is based on chemical energy (in contrast to the surface where most ecosystems are based on light energy).


What example of symbiosis do you find most fascinating?

I think the most fascinating aspect is how organisms are able to colonize new habitats simply by engaging in symbioses with other organisms rather than inventing new functions themselves. This is what allows lots of animals to survive on cellulose (e.g., cows), what allows plants to photosynthesize and what allows many species in the bottom of the ocean to survive without eating.


Do you think humans have evolved to their full potential? If not, how could we improve?

Evolution continues for all species, all the time. It never stops. As for potential, that depends on what one’s goals are. So sure, if you think humans should be faster, I am sure that one could conceive of a way to evolve humans to be faster. But that would likely be unethical and probably silly.


I think the most interesting thing about humans is that in addition to genetic evolution, we have cultural evolution and therefore we can supplement our genetic potential or limitations with other things. I for one am highly supplemental thanks to cultural evolution with glasses, lots of possessions and insulin. I probably could survive without the possessions, possibly survive without the glasses, but I would be dead without the insulin.


We have lots and lots of problems in the world. They are not going to be solved by genetic changes, but instead by cultural ones.


Other than what you learned in school, what tool or piece of information do you use most in your line of work?

Computers computers computers.


Tell us about that April fool’s prank …

I have always been a prankster. I have been [pulling pranks] for years.


Last year[2007], in a fit of hacking on the evening of Mar. 31, I made a fake New York Times article about [one of my colleagues] Craig Venter which I then circulated by e-mail and it got distributed very widely and lots of people liked it. However, it did not become completely viral and I think this was because it was not posted on the web. So I schemed to do one this year[2008] which involved fully using the web, and I found the perfect place to plan this joke – I got invited to a meeting at Google HQ with a collection of top notch science journalists, scientists, engineers and science bloggers.


I thus began my conspiracy to have as many people as possible post entries on April 1 about the same fake story. The story would be a spoof of the doping controversies in cycling and baseball but do it for scientists. Initially we were going to say the same drugs used in cycling were being abused by scientists, but then we came up with the idea to say that “brain doping” was being outlawed by the US and EU governments and that there was a worldwide crackdown on cognitive enhancement.


Little did we know when we first planned this that brain doping was a real issue and though the government was not crackingdown on it yet, there were high level discussion about the problem. We decided to continue with the joke although in a way it was less funny because it was sort of close to reality.


In my mind, good pranks like this seem real when they happen and then are completely ludicrous in retrospect. So we planned our joke, and I even created a fake website for the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority (WABDA), and became viral with all sorts of people believing it.


Outside of the prank, do you think that scientists could actually benefit from any kind of drug?

I keep getting asked this. I think scientists get plenty from drugs already, like caffeine so there is certainly anecdotal evidence that drugs can help. But despite a lot of people apparently taking these other drugs to improve thinking, it is not clear if it really helps.


So I think it is possible drugs can help people do better science. But the data seems to be weak on which ones to take. And then you get into ethical questions, such as, if we compete for grants, is it fair to take drugs if they are not available to all?


What do you do when you aren’t teaching or doing research on campus?

Hanging out with my kids, Analia, who is almost 4 and Andres who is almost 2. They are the best things ever.



LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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