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Documents on Molecular Evolution

Profiles-Allan Wilson

Allan Wilson (1934-1991) was a pioneer in the use of molecular approaches to understand evolutionary change and reconstruct phylogenies. He was one of the most controversial figures in post-war biology, whose work attracted a great deal of attention both from within, and outside, the academic world. Wilson first gained prominence in 1967 when he and Vincent Sarich used immunological techniques to argue that humans and apes diverged from a common ancestor only around five million years ago. Most contemporary anthropologists, who favored a date of around 25 million years, dismissed his work as absurd. The controversy that ensued widened the fissure that was already developing between molecular and organismal biologists. His next major achievement came in the mid-1970s, when he and Mary-Claire King determined, using electrophoresis, that humans and chimpanzees were only 1 percent distinct at the level of proteins. Wilson remains best known, however, for his work in the mid- and late-1980s with Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking on the so-called "Mitchocondrial Eve" hypothesis. Based on their studies of restriction site variation in human mitchocondria, they argued that all living humans descended from a common ancestor that lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago.

Wilson's success can at least partially be attributed to his willingness to adopt new molecular techniques at the earliest stages of their development. For instance, he was one of the first scientists to apply DNA sequencing and PCR to the study of evolution. Throughout the course of his career, Wilson trained more than 200 graduate students and post-docs in molecular evolutionary biology. Indeed, his laboratory was a virtual obligatory passage point for anyone wishing to do empirical work in the field of molecular evolution in the 1970s and 1980s.

One unifying aspect of all of Wilson's work was the importance he placed on the molecular clock. He came to be seen as one of the most prominent defenders of the notion that at least some evolutionary change at the molecular level is due to mutations that occur at a steady rate, unaffected by selective pressures. By comparing DNA and proteins from various species, he argued, one could approximate the amount of time that has past since they diverged.

Born in 1934 in New Zealand, Wilson received his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley in 1961 under the direction of Arthur Pardee. After doing post-doctoral work, he returned to Berkeley as a professor, where he remained until his untimely death in July 1991 while undergoing treatment for leukemia. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Selected Bibliography:

  • A.C.Wilson and N.O.Kaplan (1963) Enzymes and nucleic acids in systematics. Proceedings of the XVI International Congress of Zoology Vol.4, pp.125-127.
  • A.C.Wilson and N.O.Kaplan (1964) Enzyme structure and its relation to taxonomy. In: C.A.Leone (editor) Taxonomic Biochemistry and Serology Ronald Press, New York.
  • A.C.Wilson and V.M.Sarich (1969) A molecular time scale for human evolution. PNAS Vol.63 (No.4), pp.1088-1093
  • A.C.Wilson, L.R.Maxson and V.M.Sarich (1974) Two types of molecular evolution: Evidence from studies of interspecific hybridization. PNAS Vol.71, pp.2843-2847
  • V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1967) Immunological time scale for hominid evolution. Science Vol.158, pp.1200-1203.
  • V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1967) Rates of albumin evolution in primates. PNAS Vol.58 (No.1), pp.142-148.
  • D.G.Wallace, L.R.Maxson and A.C.Wilson (1971) Albumin evolution in frogs: A test of the evolutionary clock hypothesis. PNAS Vol.68, pp.3127-3129.
  • V.M.Sarich and A.C.Wilson (1973) Generation time and genomic evolution in primates. Science Vol 179, pp.1144-1147.
  • A.C.Wilson, V.M.Sarich and L.R.Maxson (1974) The importance of gene rearrangement in evolution: evidence from studies on rates of chromosomal, protein, and anatomical evolution. PNAS Vol.71, pp.3028-3030
  • M.C.King and A.C.Wilson (1975) Evolution at two levels in humans and chimpanzees. Science Vol.188, pp.107-116 (see also commentary Science Vol.189, pp.446-447).
  • M.C.King and A.C.Wilson (1975) Our close cousin, the chimpanzee. New Scientist Vol.67, pp.16-18
  • A.C.Wilson (1975) Evolutionary importance of gene regulation. Stadler Genetics Symposium Vol.7, pp.117-134.
  • C.Y.K.Ho, E.M.Prager, A.C.Wilson, D.T.Osuga and R.E.Feeney (1976) Penguin evolution: Protein comparisons demonstrate phylogenetic relationship to flying aquatic birds. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.8, pp.271-282.
  • A.C.Wilson, S.S.Carlson and T.J.White (1977) Biochemical evolution. Annual Review of Biochemistry Vol.46, pp.573-639.
  • L.M.Cherry, S.M.Case and A.C.Wilson (1978) Frog perspective on the morphological difference between humans and chimpanzees. Science Vol.200, pp.209-211.
  • L.M.Cherry, S.M.Case and A.C.Wilson (1979) Comparison of frogs, humans and chimpanzees. Science Vol.204, p.435.
  • S.D.Ferris, A.C.Wilson and W.M.Brown (1981) Evolutionary tree for apes and humans based on cleavage maps of mitochondrial DNA.PNAS Vol.78, pp.2432-2436.
  • R.L.Cann and A.C.Wilson (1982) Models of human evolution. Science Vol.217, pp.303-304.
  • W.M.Brown, E.M. Prager, A.Wang and A.C.Wilson (1982) Mitochondrial DNA sequences of primates: Tempo and mode of evolution. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.18, pp.225-239.
  • R.L.Cann and A.C.Wilson (1983) Length mutations in human mitochondrial DNA. Genetics Vol.104, pp.699-711.
  • R.L.Cann, W.M.Brown and A.C.Wilson (1984) Polymorphic sites and the mechanism of evolution in human mitochondrial DNA. Genetics Vol.106, pp.479-499.
  • A.Larson, E.M.Prager and A.C.Wilson (1984) Chromosomal evolution, speciation and morphological change in vertebrates: The role of social behaviour. In M.D. Bennett and A.Gropp (editors) Chromosomes Today (Vol.8) Allen and Unwin, pp. 215-228.
  • R.G.Higuchi, B.Bowman B, M.Freiberger, O.A.Ryder and A.C.Wilson (1984) DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family. Nature Vol.312, pp.282-284.
  • S.M.Beverley and A.C.Wilson (1984) Molecular evolution in Drosophila and the higher diptera II: A time scale for fly evolution. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.21, pp.1-13.
  • A.C.Wilson (1985) The molecular basis of evolution. Scientific American Vol.253 (No.4, October), pp.164-173.
  • R.L.Cann, M.Stoneking and A.C.Wilson (1987) Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution. Nature Vol.325, pp. 31-36.
  • R.G.Higuchi, L.A.Wrischnik, E.Oakes, M.George, B.Tong and A.C.Wilson (1987) Mitochondrial DNA of the extinct quagga: relatedness and extent of postmortem change. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.25 (No.4), pp.283-287.
  • S.Paabo, J.A.Gifford and A.C.Wilson (1988) Mitochondrial DNA sequences from a 7,000-year-old brain. Nucleic Acids Research. Vol.16, pp.9775-9787.
  • S.Pääbo, R.G.Higuchi and A.C.Wilson (1989) Ancient DNA and the polymerase chain reaction: The emerging field of molecular archaeology (Minireview). Journal of Biological Chemistry. Vol.264, pp.9709-9712
  • A.C.Wilson (1990) Will sequencing the human genome revolutionize biology? New Biology, Vol.2 (No.7), pp.585-586.
  • D.M.Irwin, T.D.Kocher and A.C.Wilson (1991) Evolution of the cytochrome b gene of mammals. Journal of Molecular Evolution Vol.32 (No.2), pp.128-144
  • L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, A.C.Wilson, C.R.Cantor, R.M.Cook-Deegan and M.C.King (1991) Call for a worldwide survey of human genetic diversity: a vanishing opportunity for the Human Genome Project. Genomics Vol.11 (No.2) pp.490-491.
  • S.Pääbo and A.C.Wilson (1991) Miocene DNA sequences - A dream come true? Current Biology Vol.1, pp.45-46.
  • A.C.Wilson and R.L.Cann (1992) The recent African genesis of humans. Scientific American Vol.266 (No 4, April): pp.68-73
  • P. Goloubinoff, S.Pääbo and A.C.Wilson (1993) The evolution of maize according to nuclear DNA sequences from archaeological specimens. PNAS Vol.90, pp.1997-2001
This page was written by Jay Aronson on September 22, 2001