American scientists have cocked a snook at new-age creationists who peddle the idea of intelligent design by voting Darwinian evolution as breakthrough of the year.
The editors of the journal Science said several studies published in 2005 have shown beyond any doubt how evolution underpins all aspects of modern biology. "Painstaking field observations shed new light on how populations diverge to form new species - the mystery of mysteries that baffled Darwin himself," they wrote. "Ironically, also this year some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution. With all this in mind, Science has decided to put Darwin in the spotlight by saluting several dramatic discoveries, each of which reveals the laws of evolution in action."
In 2005, scientists decoded the genome of the chimpanzee to confirm that the chimp is our closest living relative, descended from a common ancestor.
Other researchers sequenced the genome of the 1918 flu virus retrieved from the frozen corpse of an Alaskan victim of the pandemic.
A second team of scientists used the sequence to rebuild the virus in the laboratory in order to analyse why it was so deadly. They also found that it had evolved directly from a bird flu virus. "Understanding the evolution of last century's deadly bird flu may help us to predict and cope with the current bird flu threat," said the Science editors.
Other studies showed how small changes or mutations in the DNA of a species can result in dramatic evolutionary transformations, such as the creation of two species from one. "Researchers found that a single genetic change can be all it takes to turn one species into many, as in the case of the Alaskan stickleback fish that lost its armour and evolved from an ocean-loving species to a variety of landlocked lake dwellers," the journal said.
David Kingsley, professor of developmental biology at Stanford University in California, said the stickleback research in 15 different species of fish showed for the first time that a single genetic mutation was responsible for evolutionary changes.
"People who believe in intelligent design argue that such major changes cannot come about through Darwinian evolution but this is obviously false, said Professor Kingsley. "Sticklebacks with major changes in skeletal armour and fin structures are thriving in natural environments. And the major differences between forms can now be traced to particular genes."
The editors of Science wrote: "Today, evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for granted."