Evolution in action

Researchers at Whitehead Institute are zooming in on the molecules of life — DNA, RNA, and proteins — to understand how modifications at a molecular level have a lasting impact on the way organisms grow, develop, survive, and reproduce.

Illustration of a scientist examining a tree with organisms, including planarians, at the end of the branches.

Life on Earth began some 3.8 billion years ago and has been evolving ever since. Fortunately, piecing together this evolutionary history doesn’t require time travel — researchers at Whitehead Institute are studying the life span of everything from individual cells and microorganisms to more complex species like fruit flies and plants to learn how evolution is taking place around us in real time. As American geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky emphasized "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

In the lab of Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman and collaborators, researchers use CRISPR technology to track the lineage of individual cancer cells across generations of cell division. This approach of constructing a cell’s family tree allows them to rewind the molecular clock and study each event in a cancer’s origin story — mutation, proliferation, and metastasis — in fine-grained detail.

“Previously, the critical events that cause a tumor to become life-threatening have been opaque because they are lost in a tumor’s distant past, but this gives us a window into that history,” Weissman said. Their work could eventually refine existing cancer therapies and inform the development of new ones, particularly for rapidly spreading metastatic cancers.

Mary Gehring, Whitehead Institute Member and David Baltimore Chair, is using epigenetics — heritable information that regulates genes by turning them on and off without altering the DNA sequence — to explore how various genes affect plant growth and development, from gamete cells to seed maturation, across multiple generations. These insights are essential for engineering the next generation of crops: stress-resistant, more nutritious, and higher yielding plants.

Whitehead Fellow Lindsey Backman is also looking at evolution but in neither plants nor animals. Her work on a handful of anaerobes — microorganisms that do not need oxygen to survive or proliferate — that inhabit our skin, mouth, and gut is revealing basic principles of how pathogens outcompete beneficial bacteria in the body, promoting infections. These bacteria are living descents of primitive organisms that existed billions of years ago when Earth’s atmosphere and oceans were devoid of oxygen. Over time, they’ve managed to successfully deploy an array of strategies to thrive in an oxygen-rich world.

Explore the stories in this multimedia collection to learn about these research projects — and others — that are catching evolution in action and illuminating the past like never before.  


Whitehead Institute researchers study the fundamentals of biology, parsing the function of genes and other cellular components in both health and disease. This work is informed by an understanding of evolution — how these biological systems came to be. Explore fundamental conceptions in evolution by reading this cartoon explainer. 

Changes in DNA and gene function are the engines that drive evolution. These seemingly small modifications in an organism’s evolutionary journey ultimately dictate its fate —  deciding which traits will be safeguarded and transmitted through generations, and which new traits will emerge. Whitehead Institute researchers are studying how organisms sharing a common ancestor develop unique traits over time, diverging from one another. These traits — encoded in the genes — impact their chances of survival and reproduction.

Despite their distinct evolutionary histories, different species can sometimes arrive at similar solutions for survival. The work of various researchers at Whitehead Institute investigates this fascinating phenomenon, called convergent evolution, through the lens of shared mechanisms governing reproduction, development, and regeneration across a range of species.