Long-term Experiments

I recently read this Nature article, where is described what is probably one of the longest experiments ever to be conducted. A population of E. coli was kept for 20 years (!) in a nutrient solution (low on glucose), and samples were taken and deep-frozen after 2000, 5000, 10000, 15000, 20000 and 40000 generations. The authors sequenced the genome of the sample bacteria to investigate the rate of mutations.

Up to generation 20K, the number of mutations grew steadily to a total of 45. The adaptation to the environment, however, only increased strongly in the beginning. It was concluded that the most beneficial mutations were the first to occur. After generation 20K, a change in the mutT gene caused a rapid increase in the mutation rate to result in 653 mutation at generation 40K, but with a neutral signature, i.e. no further adaptation.

What I find most fascinating about this extreme long-term experiment is the confidence of the researchers that it would be possible to analyze the genes at a later point; this was not at all self-evident in the late ’80s! In addition, some work had to be done each day, for twenty years. What if the power had failed for a week or so? Of course, this unique opportunity to watch evolution as it happens is very intriguing.

An experiment that took even longer was awarded this year’s Ig Nobel Prize in medicine: Donald L. Unger of Thousand Oaks, CA, cracked the knuckles of his left hand, but not his right hand, every day for 50 years to see if knuckle-cracking leads to arthritis. After this time, both hands were fine, so he concluded: “While a larger group would be necessary to confirm this result, this preliminary investigation suggests a lack of correlation between knuckle cracking and the development of arthritis of the fingers.” Apparently, the experiment must be repeated.

2 Comments

  1. There was a viscosity experiment which involved an extremely viscous fluid set up to form and drop large droplets….it was started in the late 1920’s and I think the 8th drop fell in 2000!

    Have to respect the dedication in such experimens!

  2. A creative experiments.

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