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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Middle man

April 10, 2009

Alan Love.

Alan Love, an assistant professor of philosophy, is making his mark as a philosopher of biology.
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams

As scientists search for answers, philosopher Alan Love focuses on the questions

By Deane Morrison

Rarely do students choose a graduate school just to work with an assistant professor. Yet two of five in the University of Minnesota's latest entering class of philosophy graduate students wanted to come here to study with  Alan Love.

Barely four years out of graduate school himself, Love has carved out a niche as a philosopher of science, especially biology. He aims to work with biologists in widely diverse specialties to find a common language for their common subject: life.

Love concentrates on how questions and concepts cut across disciplines, seeking to understand how researchers in every field, from molecular biology to behavior, can relate to them—and each other.

Bridging gaps

For example, consider two researchers studying how an organism goes from embryo to adult. Working with zebrafish, the first one studies differentiation, the process by which embryonic cells begin to take on individual identities as, say, future intestinal, reproductive, or brain cells.

Alan Love is one of 11  McKnight Land-Grant Professors for 2009-11 named by the University Graduate School.

The second, working with frogs, studies morphogenesis, the movement of cells and tissues that generates 3-D shape. This can be seen, for example, in time-lapse photography of frog eggs. A frog egg divides over and over until it turns into a hollow ball of cells. Then cells in one area push inward, forming an indentation that deepens into a tube that becomes the gut.

Differentiation and morphogenesis: two processes, two specialties, two model organisms, and two researchers who may never connect.

"Both are asking questions about how organisms develop," Love observes. "But we need to understand in greater detail how the questions about differentiation relate to the questions about morphogenesis."

This may lead the two researchers to jointly examine whether differentiation and morphogenesis are related by cause and effect. That is, when embryonic cells acquire some specific identity, does that cause them to migrate to specific locations in the embryo? Or does migration to a certain part of the embryo lead them to acquire their identities? And does one get the same answers in frogs and zebrafish?

"Science is often presented as a set of facts. ... It shows there's a lot more work to be done and gets students thinking about what's not known and what they can contribute."

Questions like these are of more than academic interest because it is thought that cells that fail to differentiate have an increased likelihood of turning cancerous. Also, if cells fail to migrate properly, that could lead to physical defects in the resulting organism. Understanding these processes will help in the medical fight against such conditions.

Or take another thorny problem, this time in evolution. Evolutionary theory holds that natural selection favors individuals with certain traits such as superior speed or strength. Those traits allow them to survive and leave more offspring than other individuals in particular environments, thereby spreading the traits in the population.

But how do new traits appear in the first place? How, for example, did feathers evolve from reptilian scales in ancestors of birds?

A question like that goes to the heart of how life is structured to adapt to new circumstances. And it is the topic of hot debate among evolutionary biologists, who generally agree that genes are involved in evolutionary change. But some think that the main mechanism behind the origin of new traits is genetic mutation, whereas others argue it's gene regulation.

In genetic mutation, genes change, like typos appearing in text. Mutations can have far-reaching effects, such as causing sickle-cell anemia in humans or conferring resistance to herbicides in plants.

In gene regulation, genes stay the same but their activity changes. For example, a gene that helps shape a forelimb suddenly gets switched on in the tail, producing a new trait. No typos in the text, just a matter of whether, and where, the gene gets "read."

Where's the common ground between these two points of view?

"What you have here is a question about how variation is generated," says Love. "Scientists have competing explanations for how it happens.

He sees his job as not "to be a prophet about how it'll turn out," but to shape the conversation by analyzing the question of how new traits originate and what approaches the researchers should take to answer it. By doing so he hopes to throw new light on the issue and help scientists talk to each other. And in this case, there's certainly room for both mechanisms to be at work in evolution.

Bigger questions

By adding context that helps researchers synthesize distinct fields of biological inquiry, Love opens a door to asking and answering big questions about what life is and how it works.

"Science is often presented as a set of facts," says Love. "I think you might recruit more people into science, math, and engineering if undergraduates saw more of these dimensions and connections, their potential to answer bigger questions, and, most importantly, how their own contributions can fit into a larger whole. It shows there's a lot more work to be done and gets students thinking about what's not known and what they can contribute."