By Andrew Jacob


Unbeknownst to many undergraduate students on campus, professors from various fields of the sciences visit this University almost every day to discuss their research findings and current work.  Usually, these events are attended by graduate students and professors searching for free coffee and a bit of news regarding the scientific community.  Although the discussions may be a bit out of the realm of undergraduate learning, they are still insightful for students who wish to pursue a career in research or who are currently doing research of their own.

On April 16th, Dr. Neil Shubin visited Stony Brook for one of these events sponsored by the Department of Ecology and Evolution to discuss his research on the evolution of limb development and its molecular mechanisms.  Professor Shubin is probably best known for his discovery of a 375 million year old fossil of an animal named Tiktaalik roseae.  This “fishapod”, as it is called, is often considered a “missing link” between lobe-finned ancient fish and tetrapods, which evolved to walk on land.  Tiktaalik had many characteristics of both a water-dwelling fish and an animal that walked on land.  It had very limb-like fins, a neck, and even a shoulder.  “Essentially, Tiktaalik was a fish that could do push-ups”, proclaimed Shubin.  He and his team discovered Tiktaalik in the far north of Canada in 2004.  “It was at a site that hadn’t been excavated yet,” Shubin explained.  Now, four years later, Shubin and his team are still unlocking the secrets of Tiktaalik and the fish-to-land transition.  “We’re working on the skull of Tiktaalik, the braincase, the interior of the skull.  We’re trying to find out how it would feed and other questions.  We’re preparing now for another field expedition in July,” he explained.

Professor Shubin also went on to discuss his research on the genetic pathways of limb development.  In his lab, he and a team of graduate students have researched the Sonic Hedgehog gene, which controls the directionality of limb development in embryos that can be traced back along the evolutionary lineage all the way to the fins of fish and beyond.  “For me, the power is using both techniques to answer questions.  That’s the power of evolutionary biology.  It’s not just fossils or just genes, it’s both,” the professor went on to explain.

Despite the continued research in the field of molecular biology, Professor Shubin believes that science is still far from a “Jurassic Park” type scenario.  However, he did state that, “I’ve learned never to say never in science. If you can think it, it can be made possible.”  I guess we’ll just have to continue to keep our fingers crossed.

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