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Evolution: Getting in on the Action

Ever wonder what happened to the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship made famous by one of its passengers, Charles Darwin? Darwin signed on as the ship’s unpaid naturalist in 1831 and began a 5-year journey that forever changed the course of science.

Robert Prescott, an archaeologist at the University of St. Andrews, and Colin Pillinger of the United Kingdom's Open University, wondered what happened to the Beagle, so they went looking for it. The two discovered that, following Darwin's circumnavigation, the Beagle joined a coast guard fleet and was used to combat smuggling near Darwin's home in Kent. Eventually it was sold for scrap.

Last year, Prescott and Pillinger announced that, using old-fashioned research and a much newer technique called atomic dielectric resonance, they've located what they think is the ship’s remains beneath meters of mud in a marsh in Essex.

Pillinger, by the way, is the designer of the Beagle 2, the Martian probe used in the failed Mars Express mission. Pillinger and Prescott propose to use a probe developed for Beagle 2 to burrow beneath the Martian soil--Pillinger calls the device a "mole"--to dig into the mud and try to determine whether the buried hull they discovered is, in fact, the H.M.S. Beagle.

The H.M.S. Beagle passed out of history and--thanks to technology--seems poised to pass back into it again; meanwhile, Darwin's theory never went anywhere: time and technology have only enriched evolution and strengthened the evidence for it. These days, the study of evolution is highly technical, requiring molecular biology and sophisticated mathematical modeling, among other scientific skills.

In connection with Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year special focus, Science's Next Wave went on a search of its own, determined to identify the people who, today, are working to apply new technologies to advance evolutionary science. We also inquired into the health--scientific and fiscal--of Darwin's discipline, and its prospects as a career for today's scientific trainees.

Contemporary evolutionary science is vast--too vast to even hope for comprehensive coverage--so we selected just a few topics and scientists, a smattering of today's evolutionary scene. European correspondent Elisabeth Pain visited the Insitut Cavanilles de Biodiversitat I Biologia Evolutiva de Valencia, in Spain, where she interviewed a group of graduate students and postdocs , who shared their experiences and their thoughts about the future of the discipline. The interview demonstrates that diversity is a key concept, not just in evolutionary research, but also in evolutionary careers.

Andrew Fazekas, our Canadian correspondent, spoke to Michael Gray about the funding climate for evolutionary science in Canada, and the discipline's likely future. Evolutionary science is thriving right now, he found, but changes in the funding landscape make the future seem murky, for evolutionary science and other basic-science fields.

Adriana Briscoe, a young assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine, is following in Darwin's footsteps, assisted by technology that he could not have dreamed of. MiSciNet editor and SNW correspondent Robin Arnette asked Briscoe about her career and her work studying the evolution of color vision in butterflies and their closest relatives, moths and skippers.

European editor Anne Forde discovered, in an interview with Hannah Kokko, an evolutionary ecologist in Helsinki, Finland, that one of the keys to Kokko's professional success is her ability to balance opposing approaches and points of view: life with work, the organismal approach of evolution with the population approach of ecology, and an appreciation for the local environment with the mind-broadening value of more exotic and distant locales.

Jim Austin is the Editor of Science 's Next Wave.

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