June 7, 2019
Both social and biological diversity have been the topic of substantial research in recent years. Despite the fact that they are not strictly equivalent, these concepts of diversity reflect the number of kinds of things that exist within a group, and there is reason to think that in both cases there are substantial advantages to diversity. In my laboratory we study the biological diversity of photosynthetic eukaryotic microorganisms – algae – with special reference to two key events in the Earth’s evolutionary history: the origin of chloroplasts and the colonization of land by plants (which are really a specialized form of green alga). We are working to describe the evolutionary relationships (phylogeny) of dinoflagellates and green algae by collecting genome-scale RNA and DNA databases, using computational methods to analyze them, and performing experiments to test how diverse species interact in laboratory culture. I also bring my own form of diversity to the table as a scientist; although privileged in many ways, I have had to navigate the waters of professional life as an openly gay man with relatively few role models, and in a sometimes hostile society. It should be unsurprising that a homogeneous population of organisms (a monoculture) is less resilient to changing conditions than is a population with more diversity, because within that diversity there is differential response to the environment, so different individuals will thrive as conditions change. Less obvious may be the practical benefits that come to the entire group from social diversity, but the mechanisms that underlie these responses have common attributes.
Charles Delwiche is a Professor of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland – College Park, and is also the Director of Graduate Studies for the Biological Sciences. He grew up in rural California, and in high school did competitive horseback riding (which is a thing). He went to the University of California – Berkeley for college, where he majored in botany (the study of plants), and then moved to Wisconsin to study for his doctorate (Ph.D.), also in botany. His research uses genomic (DNA) methods and microscopy to study the early history of evolution, and understand how plants evolved from structurally simple ancestors. Some of his work makes use of fossils, but most of it is based on the properties of living relatives of plants. He teaches an honors seminar on Evolutionary Medicine, and also teaches Microbial Ecology. He has received over 4 million dollars in research support from the National Science Foundation, and was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Young Investigator award in Molecular Studies of Evolution, the Darbaker Award in studies of Microalgae from the Botanical Society of America, and is a Kavli Fellow. He knows more about pond scum than almost anyone, which may not seem important, but they make the oxygen that you breathe.