Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Twisted Tree of Life Award #1: Salk Institute Press Release on Kinases

I am starting a new award here --- for people or sites that do something silly in regard to the "Tree of Life" but should know better. That is, this is for scientists or sciency sites that do something unseemly with the Tree of Life. And the first award goes to the Salk Institute for their press release relating to a paper on kinases in single celled choanoflagellates (OK - the pres release is a month and a half old but I was out sick - and I drafted this 7/8/08). In the press release, which discusses a PNAS paper by Gerard Manning and colleagues (Manning does some really great comparative work on kinases and helped me look at kinases in a few genomes such as that of Tetrahymena thermophila). I note - it seems Manning or someone has paid the OA fee for this paper so anyone can read it.

The paper seems both sound and interesting. And it has a really really cool tree figure.

But the press release has a few doozies. The worst (or best, I guess, depending on your point of view) is the following:
It commands a signaling network more elaborate and diverse than found in any multicellular organism higher up on the evolutionary tree, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have discovered.
Yup that is right. A modern organism, living today is somehow "lower" on the tree of life than we are. Too bad the person who wrote the press release did not read Amy Harmon's recent Times story on evolution education. Or they could have gotten help from the high school science teacher Harmon featured, who taught his students about how modern organisms did not evolve from other modern organisms.

And for using one of my most hated metaphors in all of evolution (higher and lower organisms), Salk gets my first "Twisted Tree of Life Award"


  1. thanks for this jonathan. I had not seen the paper, now will.

  2. Choanoflagellates are 'lower organisms' only in the sense that they are shorter than you or I.

    But the use of the phrase "higher up on the evolutionary tree" opens up a different possibility: if the tree is rooted at the bottom of the page and branch lengths are proportional to sequence substitutions, then wouldn't it be the choanoflagellates that are 'higher up'?

  3. I think it would be fun to rotate branches in various trees to change the view of what is higher and lower