What your colon and a butterfly have in common

I sit in a lab in a state of disarray, full of unopened boxes, chemical containers and keepsakes from Kentucky, all artifacts of a recent move. Across from me is the department of biological science’s new associate professor and Canadian research chair (CRC) in phylogenomics, Jeffrey Marcus. I have to admit to feelings of nervousness, doubting my research into Marcus’ work had adequately prepared me to interview a CRC, but his easy demeanor and deliberate responses to my questions soon put me at ease.

If you’re anything like me, the obvious question on your mind right now is “what is phylogenomics?” Marcus admits that when he first saw the job posting he had to figure that out for himself. “[Phylogenomics] is a very new field and there is a certain amount of disagreement about what is properly phylogenomics and what is just masquerading.” According to Marcus These definitional disagreements make building a consensus on what phylogenomics actually is difficult at best. As a compromise he offered what he called a “middle of the road” definition.

“Phylogenomics is a field which uses the study of evolutionary biology to inform our
understanding of genome function and structure,” says Marcus. “It is also the use of genomic data to help us understand the history of evolution.” Put another way you might be able to define it as the study of the relationship between DNA and biology.

Complicating matters is the field of molecular phylogenetics, which is a closely related to phylogenomics, where the physical makeup of a series of genes is used to study the interrelatedness between different species. For example, a piece of DNA coding for a gene might be shared by two very different species — an artifact of our common evolutionary history with almost every species on the planet — but does very different things in each organism. Phylogeneticists study these relationships in order to better understand the shared history of the two species, and to develop theories on evolution.

Marcus hopes that as a CRC he can “look at [all of the different phylogenomic] research traditions, each with their own training and statistical tests, take elements from each and develop a better and richer science [from them.]” Marcus also sees himself as a biological ambassador of sorts, helping to create interdepartmental and inter-faculty relationships, playing to the different strengths inherent in each department and faculty to help everyone with their goals of moving science forward. This is a role he feels he can better accomplish as a CRC than just as a new professor; “[this position] is supposed to help build connections between people with shared interests, and it’s a little easier to have a chair bridge the gap than a new associate professor.”

One of the challenges that Marcus recognizes as inherent in phylogenomics is not being able to see the forest for the trees, or concentration on one very specialized aspect of one organism at the cost of our understanding that organism’s biology as a whole. “There is a concern that we are losing important techniques in traditional natural history because people are not getting the funding to train new graduate students, and therefore their knowledge and experience is not getting passed on,” something which Marcus acknowledges could result in a biology which is “divorced from organisms that function in the real world.” In order to avoid this situation Marcus studies butterflies, or more specifically the development of markings on butterfly wings.

“[The colour pattern trait on butterfly wings] is one of those traits that have a clear function.” Marcus goes on to explain that there are many different, and well-understood functions for colour spots, from black markings that help a butterfly warm up quicker in the morning sun, to eyespots, or dark colourations, which are designed to confuse potential predators. By focusing on traits with easy to define functions Marcus learns things about the selective environment that influences those changes. But while Marcus’ research appears focused on a seemingly obscure physical feature of butterflies, you would be wrong to assume that it doesn’t have implications for you and me.

While working in Kentucky, in an almost textbook-prefect example of phylogenomics and phylogenetics at work, Marcus and his team studied a relationship between butterfly wing eyespots and cancer. “There is a [cell signaling] mechanism by which butterflies make eyespots in particular,” Marcus begins. “ [ . . . ] The butterfly specifies the centre of the spot, and the cells at that centre send out a signaling protein which [radiates outward] like ripples in a pond.” He goes on to explain that the signaling molecule decides the rate of cell division, which slows proportionally to how far away from the centre of the eyespot you get. Things start to get really interesting when Marcus describes how this pathway is linked to colon cancer.

“This [signaling protein] is shared between insects and mammals,” only in mammals it doesn’t control eyespot formation but rates of cell division in the colon, which is a part of the body that requires careful regulation. “If you don’t have enough [cell division] the colon walls will be too thin and prone to rupturing, but if you have too much the cells run out of room and start growing into polypus and precancerous nodes.” It has been discovered that up to 90 per cent of genetically inherited colon cancers are caused by the over activation of this cell signaling pathway and the resulting rapid and unchecked cell division.

Since the same cell-signaling pathway is responsible for both eyespot formation and the growth of precancerous nodes in the human colon, Marcus sees butterfly wings as an ideal place to test compounds which could control the activation of this pathway and offer a treatment for colon cancer victims, since the formation — or lack thereof — of eyespots on test butterflies offers a clear visual cue as to weather your compound is working or not.

Considering that Marcus and his lab was doing groundbreaking and important research in Kentucky it seems slightly surprising that he would move from the mild weather of Bowling Green to the cold of Winnipeg, even for a prestigious CRC position, however those familiar with Kentucky and some of its more radical religious views might not be so surprised.

As a vocal critic of teaching creationism in public schools and as biologist studying evolution, Kentucky — the home of the world-famous creationist museum — seems like a difficult place for someone like Marcus to live. However, while he often had to deal with a small contingent of students who questioned the validity of Darwinism, he maintains that “most people [in Kentucky] are willing to believe that evolution is God’s way of creating.” It was the unwelcoming attitude of some Kentuckians toward non-Christians that most influenced Marcus’ decision. “It was far more difficult to be a non-Christian than an evolutionist. [ . . . ] The Ku Klux Klan was somewhat active [in Bowling Green]; there was a cross burning in the past few years and, more recently, cards handed out with ‘we’re watching you while you sleep’ written on them.”

These events and attitudes convinced Marcus and his wife that they did not want to have kids in Kentucky, and Winnipeg’s strong Jewish community was one of the things that attracted Marcus here.

While he currently has his full attention focused on setting up his new lab on the fifth floor of the Buller building and applying for research grants, Marcus is looking forward to getting to know Winnipeg and the U of M, and is excited by the prospect of working with the University of Winnipeg, Brandon University and Red River Community College to help form stronger bonds between the province’s post-secondary institutions. “I’m hoping to build connections with these institutes, [because] you don’t lose anything from cooperating.”