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Natural Evolution in a Career

“It’s like doing a crossword puzzle with a missing word that you can’t think of; then suddenly the light bulb goes off and there is a piece of information that fits.” That’s how evolutionary biologist Michael Gray describes his work deciphering gene sequences within the mitochondria of protist cells and seeing how they have changed over time. Gray is professor and head of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, a fellow in the evolutionary biology program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research ( CIAR), and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Genome Evolution. “It’s really satisfying," he says, "when you have that one moment you know something that nobody else on this Earth knows.”

It is an exciting time for evolutionary biology and, after 3 decades of scientific research, Gray’s enthusiasm is unabated. New techniques and tools have allowed molecular evolutionary biology to blossom in Canada over the last few decades. Particularly exciting, he says, are advancements in genomics--his specialty--that have begun to unlock some of the deepest secrets of the origins of life, including the evolutionary history of cells and their genes.

But everything is not rosy. Gray is concerned that, in evolutionary biology as in many other basic scientific disciplines, challenging times may lie ahead as financial support for basic research tightens.

A Nurturing Environment

Since its inception 20 years ago, the evolutionary biology program at CIAR has been instrumental in the emergence of this field in Canada. The Toronto-based CIAR is an institute without walls, networking researchers from a variety of disciplines from across Canada. By providing salary support to individual scientists at universities, the program allows participants to focus on basic research. Participants also are able to meet, interact, and collaborate with peers from across the country and the world. “That program has really been instrumental in putting evolutionary biology as a field in Canada at the forefront internationally," says Gray.

But CIAR has decided to phase out its evolutionary biology initiative, judging that the program has fulfilled its objective: kick-starting evolutionary biology in Canada and getting it established at universities. “CIAR likes to concentrate its resources on what it perceives to be cutting-edge areas," says Gray, "and it has made a fairly long commitment to this program.” But the end of the CIAR program means that evolution may now have to learn to survive in whatever niches it can find in an environment that, compared to what the field is used to, is relatively barren.

It may, but then again, it may not. Patrick Keeling, assistant professor in the department of botany at the University of British Columbia, is leading an effort to establish a second-generation CIAR program, to be called Integrated Microbial Biodiversity. Researchers anticipate that this new initiative will be approved as an official CIAR program in February 2006. It will build on the foundation of the previous program but go in a new direction: microbial biodiversity. If it is funded, says Keeling, the new program will enable the exploration of some of the previous work and take it further. “I think that this microbial biodiversity is an emerging field, and Canada can make a really big difference,” Keeling says

The Broad Picture

But even if the new initiative is funded, many evolutionary scientists will have to seek other options. And other options do exist: funding from other organizations for evolution-related research has increased, especially for the genomics approaches (large-scale DNA sequencing and bioinformatics) that underpin molecular evolution research. The Canada Research Chairs program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the granting councils (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), says Gray, have all helped fuel Canada's evolution-research revolution. But the big player on the block, when it comes to funding genomic research in this country--and the genomic aspects of evolution research--is Genome Canada.

With CIAR moving toward a more specialized program, it seems as if many researchers will be looking to Genome Canada for funding, says Gray. But the Genome Canada approach may spell trouble for basic science, including evolution research, Gray believes. Genome Canada's projects, says Gray, require matching funding from private-sector firms, universities, or provincial governments. “Evolutionary biology projects are very disadvantaged in that kind of funding climate because it’s very difficult to identify a private-sector funder that would be interested in putting money into a project that doesn’t have a clear economic spin off,” he says.

Another problem with the Genome Canada model, says Gray, is that it doesn't provide a lot of funding security; Genome Canada projects are constantly being reviewed, he says, with the threat of being cut off at relatively short notice. “It takes a while to build up a group of individuals that are highly specialized in an area and all too often, 5 years down the line, in a particular competition, certain projects don’t make the cut,” adds Gray, “There’s a certain lack of vision and coordination, and not knowing where we want to position the whole country.”

Keeling agrees that funding for basic evolutionary biology research programs--especially areas that do not involve genomics--can be challenging. In the current climate in Canada, a potential application--which in biology usually means a medical application--opens up more sources of potential support, which puts nonmedical basic biological science at a disadvantage. Funding agencies have to understand, says Keeling, that the questions evolutionary biologists try to answer are fundamental, and cannot be answered very quickly. “Trying to reconstruct something that happened a billion years ago, you have to have a level of patience because of the uncertainties involved.”

Ground-level views

How does the future look to the next generation of evolution researchers in Canada? One Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, who wished to remain anonymous, is troubled by what she sees. Even after 10 years of university education, she says, funding for postdoctoral training has been difficult to find. She blames it on the business model that universities seem to operate under: churning out too many highly trained scientists, making the competition for funding and jobs overwhelming. “I have found that my love for science is being counterbalanced by an increasingly cynical view of the … lack of prospects for an academic career that matches my life goals.”

Chris Lane, a postdoc at Dalhousie University, sees a more promising future. Working on genomics of algae, he feels that the field of comparative genomics is just coming into its own, with careers now beginning to be established studying groups of organisms beyond just animals and land plants. “As the cost of genomics continues to decline, we begin to explore the true diversity of life,” Lane says. Although his own residency status--Lane is from the United States--limited his own funding prospects, Lane feels that Canadians have reasonably abundant opportunities, including opportunities to work elsewhere. “The funding available for postdocs seems to be more flexible in terms of the applicant's ability to take it out of the country. I think this is important for the exchange of ideas and training on a global scale,” adds Lane

Stay the Course

A large part of Gray’s pioneering research has focused on tracing the evolutionary history of mitochondrial genomes in some of the most humble forms of life around: protozoans, slime molds, and certain types of algae. While most folks would not consider studying the genetics of sludge and ooze the most exciting of professions, Gray and his colleagues are tracing back the very origins of the first life to arise on our planet. “Being able to group different kinds of organisms together into larger groups is nice, but how they’re connected at the very early stages of cellular evolution is still very problematic,” says Gray. “The idea of how organisms and their cells evolve is still a big burning question.”

There is no question in Gray’s mind that Canadians have been at the forefront of answering those burning questions and continue to play a leading role. Sound funding was essential and he hopes that the new CIAR program and Genome Canada, along with other organizations, step up to the plate and continue the support researchers so very much need. “If we’re going to make progress--if we’re going to be considered to be the international leaders in this field--then we have to keep moving at the forefront,” he says.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at