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Intro

Introduction to evolution@home (EvoHo) and evolutionary-research (EvRe).

   

In Short: Why does this site exist?

We want to support research that helps to understand evolution. We believe this is important for our society, as it helps to understand vital topics like the impact of man on this planet, the extinction of species, the evolution of pathogenic bacteria and the meaning of genomic sequences.

Increasingly complicated mathematical models are needed for further progress. A thorough analysis of these models often requires more computing power than available for a typical research group in evolutionary biology.

Thus Laurence Loewe started evolution@home, the first global computing system for evolutionary biology. It allows you to contribute your unused CPU-power to some of the most intriguing questions in science today by downloading and running the corresponding simulators.

This site is written for two audiences, which is reflected in two abbreviations that are occasionally used:

EvoHo = evolution@home = for general public.
Evolution@home is the  global computing system that we develop and pages marked with EvoHo are written for the general public that contributes most computing power.
EvRe = evolutionary-research (with hyphen) = for scientists.
Evolutionary-research is the non-profit research initiative that runs this site and develops evolution@home. Pages marked with EvRe are written to help scientists that work on topics related to what we do in biology and informatics. Some of these pages provide an introduction into research about evolution.

As both parties need each other, we think both win by sharing a website that increases awareness of the other party. You just pick the pages you like and skip the intimidating or boring ones. EvRe and EvoHo have their own introduction pages. While not all other pages are strictly divided in these two categories it is still worth bearing in mind that these two broad categories exist. Below follows a more detailed account of the concept behind this website.

 

In detail: Welcome to evolutionary research

One of the most fascinating adventures of our time. This website is powered by evolutionary-research (with hyphen = the research initiative, short EvRe).

Our mission is to investigate the intriguing effects of evolutionary forces. While this adventure had long been the pursuit of professional biologists only, EvRe aims at involving the public: We all need to collaborate if we are to better understand the evolution of the biosphere. But how? Does everybody need to become an evolutionary biologist? No. While scientists obviously remain key to the adventure, the general public can contribute something crucial that experts are usually short of:

Computing power

Many questions in evolutionary biology are extremely hard to answer. It could be this way or another, and many plausible stories can often be told about how and why things evolve. Usually these stories draw from a similar set of mechanisms and their only difference is how to mix mechanisms together. Unfortunately, the conclusions drawn from different stories can sometimes be as different as a statement and its opposite. Since many such stories, or you could call them verbal models, depend on verbal descriptions only, there is little one can do to settle debates and make real progress. And so some arguments go round and round in circles.

Fortunately, there is a way out, which works in many cases. Rigorous mathematical descriptions of verbal models have been pivotal to the success of physics, because of their ability to settle verbal arguments. The same tools can be applied to evolutionary questions as well. That is what the discipline of population genetics has been doing since it was founded by Fisher, Wright and Haldane in the 1920's. Mathematical models of evolution were pivotal in shaping our picture of evolutionary mechanisms and without the mathematical rigor that was employed by many researchers that followed the three founding fathers, the modern theory of evolution as we know it would not exist.

However, nature does not yield its secrets easily. A prominent feature of mathematical models of evolution has been their relative simplicity that makes them analytically tractable for humans. More often than not, this simplicity is far removed from the biological reality of living organisms - a frequent cause for criticism. This brings us back to the verbal stage, where we could argue without end whether this or that process was more important in the evolution of a given system; only now we argue whether this or that simplifying assumption of our model is appropriate. The obvious solution is to build quantitatively rigorous models that are closer to biological reality than previous models. Unfortunately, such models regularly exceed the mathematic capabilities of even the brightest mathematicians.

Fortunately, progress in computer technology has equipped millions of households around the globe with more computing power than many expensive supercomputers would have had during the cold war. The advance of the Internet has made it possible to exchange information between them. And since 1995 public Internet-distributed computing, so-called global computing, was shown to be capable of solving computationally challenging problems. Thus, a new opportunity for evolutionary biology has opened up.

The success of global computing inspired the idea to use the power of global computing for analysing quantitative models of evolution: What path does simulated evolution take, if individuals behave as we believe they do in nature? Individual-based models seem to be perfect for answering such questions rigorously - if we have enough computing power to run the simulations. Unfortunately evolutionary biology does not have as much money at its fingertips as pharmaceutical research or nuclear physics, so most researchers in the field cannot buy their own supercomputers. But since evolutionary questions are highly relevant to the history and future of life on our planet, they may raise enough public interest to inspire people to donate enough computing time to do some research. We are here to facilitate this.

Two sides of the same coin

Evolutionary-research and evolution@home were started by Laurence Loewe with the vision to bring the power of global computing to evolutionary biology in general and individual-based models in particular. Since this enterprise will only make progress, if scientists and the general public work together, you can regard it as one coin with two sides: The public side is represented by evolution@home (EvoHo), the scientific side by evolutionary-research (EvRe). Since both are needed for eventual success, both are represented in this website and we resisted the temptation to separate them into two sites.

Obviously there are limits to how far someone from the general public will be able to understand what a scientist is doing without becoming a scientist in the process. Our goal is to

  • inspire some people to actually become scientists that contribute to understanding evolution
  • inspire all others to support those that do research about evolution by various means (see our page on "How you can help")

To help you pick the pages that are most appropriate for you, we sometimes provide hints in the title or description of a page as to what audience a page was mainly written for (sometimes it is obvious anyway):

  • EvoHo: This page is mostly related to evolution@home and was written for a general audience or people that want to contribute computing time.
  • EvRe: This page is mostly related to evolutionary-research and was either written for specialists or for people who want a more serious introduction into the corresponding scientific topic.

So, if you are not a specialist, just pick your sites and don't feel too bad about the things you don't understand, but please let us know via our contact feedback form, if you think that we should explain something better. If you are a specialist, then please overlook the explanations that you don't need and let us know, if you miss a resource or found an error. We hope that both of you will benefit from what you find on this site.

Be part of the adventure!

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