Human evolution and barefoot running

Jim Haber writes:

Our speaker [in the Joint Biology/Neuroscience Colloquium at 4 pm  in Gerstenzang 121] on Nov 14 is Prof. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard.  He is the second of our Distinguished Biology Lecturers.  Dan is one of the world’s experts on human evolution and running (how our necks balance our stride, among other things) .  His interests have also made him a major advocate for barefoot running.


Here’s a summary:

Ever since the human lineage diverged from the African apes, hominins have been bipeds of some sort.  Comparative and fossil evidence suggest that the earliest hominins were capable, habitual bipedal walkers but were also adept at climbing trees.  At some point, however, hominins lost the ability to climb trees very well, and became superlative long distance runners.  Comparisons of human endurance running performance with other mammals show that we excel at speed, distance, and running in the heat. Further, human distance running capabilities far exceed those of any other primate, and they match or even surpass the best mammalian runners in hot conditions over very long distances.  The human body is thus replete with many adaptations that improve endurance running performance, and many of these adaptations first appear about two million years ago in the fossil record of the genus Homo.

The evolution of human running is also relevant from the perspective of evolutionary medicine.  Perhaps the most important legacy is that humans evolved to be physical active endurance athletes compared to other apes, which helps explain why an absence of physical activity is not only abnormal but also pathological.  Another interesting legacy of our evolution history is that since humans ran barefoot for most of the last two million years, the study of barefoot running provides an opportunity to study how natural selection adapted the human body to run, potentially offering insights on preventing injury.

Quantitative Biology Bootcamp 2012

What do dinosaur DNA, calculating the global amount of carbon dioxide consumed in photosynthesis, and cooperation and cheating between yeast cells have in common?  They were all topics discussed at the sixth annual Quantitative Biology Bootcamp, held on the Brandeis campus January 12 and 13.

At the bootcamp, more than 40 Ph.D. students and faculty participated in lectures, discussions, and computational projects using both computers and pencil-on-paper approaches.  The Brandeis Quantitative Biology Program is a unique “add-on” graduate program open to students in all six of the natural sciences Ph.D. programs at Brandeis.  The main goal of the program is to train students to work effectively as a part of research teams that span the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.  To this end, Quantitative Biology students participate in both courses and out-of-classroom activities, like the Bootcamp, that highlight the diverse approaches to scientific problems taken by scientists from different disciplines.

A central feature of this year’s Bootcamp were the lectures and computer laboratory exercise presented by Jeffrey Boucher, a student in the Biochemistry Ph.D. program and the winner of Quantitative Biology Program’s 2012 HHMI Interfaces Scholar Award.  Boucher’s presentations described mathematical techniques and experimental methods that can be used to understand the processes of biological evolution by reconstructing genes and proteins present in the long-extinct progenitors of present animal, plant and microbial species. Prospective graduate students and others interested in learning more about Brandeis Quantitative Biology can consult the program’s web site at

The ancient insect nose

In a recent short article in The Journal of Experimental Biology titled JUMPING BRISTLETAILS – A GLIMPSE INTO THE ANCIENT INSECT NOSE“, postdoc Katherine Parisky discusses the evolution of the olfactory system in insects.

In order for aquatic organisms to have made the transition from living in water to surviving on land, mutations in several physiological processes needed to occur. For one sensory system, that of smell, olfactory brain structures that detect odors based on sensing air-borne, volatile and hydrophobic molecules evolved from structures that had the ability to detect aqueous hydrophilic solutions […]


Strage Award Goes to Douglas Theobald

Prof. Gregory Petsko writes:

It is with great pleasure that I announce the recipient of the 12th Annual Alberta Gotthardt and Henry Strage Award for Aspiring Young Science Faculty, Dr. Douglas Theobald of the Biochemistry Department.

Doug is one of Brandeis’ most accomplished young faculty members. Since his arrival at Brandeis, he has consistently demonstrated the ability to think deeply about some of the most fundamental problems in biology. His work on the resurrection of ancient proteins is among the most exciting research in the field of molecular evolution. Using what he terms “paleocrystallography” — in reality, a sort of Jurassic Park from ancestral molecules — he is aiming to visualize the structural changes that occur during the evolution of enzymes and protein complexes. With the high-resolution structures of reconstructed ancestral molecules, correlated with functional data from biochemical analyses, Doug will be able to test experimentally specific evolutionary hypotheses about protein evolution and gain an understanding of what functions can be rationally engineered. […] A theoretician who also has both feet firmly grounded in experiments, Doug is also a gited teacher.

The award ceremony and lecture will take place on Monday, April 11 at 1:00 pm in Gerstenzang 121. The title of Prof. Theobald’s lecture will be “Evolution of structure and function in biological macromolecules”

The Eccentricities of Darwin

From time to time we will present samples of student writing, in this first case from Professor James Morris‘s first-year seminar on The Origin of Species. Gabriella Feingold, a first-year student intending to major in Theater, kept track of her thoughts on the book over the semester in free flowing form of a blog, entitled The Eccentricities of Darwin. She hopes the blog will both educate readers on intricacies of Darwin’s writing, and allow for humorous discussion of this dense but readable text.

Here’s a sample from Gabriella’s blog:

On to Chapter 1 – Variation Under Domestication! In Chapter 1, Darwin makes an effective comparison between domestic variation and natural variation. In order for Darwin’s theory to work, variations must naturally occur and then certain ones must be naturally selected, causing evolution of species. Here, Darwin argues that people witness variation among their domestic animals, so why can’t variations occur in nature? Sure, domestic animals are actively bred, and there is a “selector” deciding which variations stay and which go, but Darwin is always a proponent of the power of nature. Humans are nothing compared to its forces. (That’s a slight paraphrase.)

My favorite part of Chapter 1 is the pigeons! Yes, Darwin goes on and on about pigeons. He has good reason though – everybody loves pigeons. In Victorian England, pigeons were bred by commoners. The idea of breeding pigeons was a familiar one and a hobby to many. Darwin also appeals to the lower class, and thereby a broad audience, by mentioning the significance of pigeons. Now all of the pigeon breeders feel important and start listening to Darwin’s ideas. At least, that’s one way to look at it.

Darwin is kind to all fellow men as he writes, but he is not afraid to put down the classic Greek philosophers. Part of Aristotle’s view on nature was that every creation has a final cause, or a purpose. Darwin, however, disagrees. On page 37, still comparing natural selection to domestic selection, Darwin writes that gardeners never plan for the final plant they end up with. Along the way, they choose variations that they like, and continually improve the plant. Natural selection works the same way. The creation does not have a final purpose, as the great Aristotle might say, rather, according to Darwin, each variation is selected by nature because it is beneficial to the organism (not because the organism is striving for a goal).

Formal test of the theory of a Universal Common Ancestor

In letter to Nature, Doug Theobald, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, presents a formal test of the theory that evolution proceeds from a single common ancestor, using model selection theory.

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