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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Biologist Richard Lenski to give keynote address at 2017 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony

07Richard_Lenski_with_Long-Term_Flasks_and_Incubator_on_May_26,_2016

Richard Lenski with a tray of flasks from the long-term evolution experiment in his lab at Michigan State University.

Richard Lenski, a biologist whose long-term experiment has tracked evolution for more than 65,000 generations of E. coli bacteria, will give the keynote address at the University’s 2017 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

The event recognizes graduate students receiving their doctoral degrees and is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. May 13 at the Smith Center.

Lenski, who received his doctorate in zoology from Carolina, is the John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University. He has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his pioneering work studying what he calls “evolution in action.”

He started his evolution experiment in 1988, choosing to study bacteria because they reproduce and evolve quickly. The experiment, which continues to this day, has enabled Lenski and his students to directly observe the process of adaptation by natural selection and to examine the repeatability of evolution in a controlled setting. They unexpectedly saw, after some 30,000 generations, the appearance of a new metabolic function in one population that transcends the usual definition of E. coli as a species. Using new technologies, Lenski’s team has sequenced hundreds of genomes to find the mutations responsible for these changes. The results of this experiment have been published in Science, Nature and other leading journals.

Lenski has also collaborated with an interdisciplinary team from computer science, philosophy and physics to study “digital organisms”— that is, computer programs that live and evolve in an artificial world. This computational approach allows the researchers to track every mutational step leading to the emergence of new functions in these evolving programs.

“Dr. Lenski has made unprecedented discoveries within evolutionary biology that resonate throughout the entire field,” said Steve Matson, dean of the Graduate School and professor of biology. “He has conducted his historic experiment with tremendous commitment, patience and passion for his work. These are essential qualities within any successful career, academic or non-academic. We are honored that he will share his perspective with Carolina’s graduating doctoral students.”

During the ceremony, each participating doctoral graduate will be called to the stage to have the hood of the commencement regalia conferred by his or her adviser or dissertation committee chair. The Graduate School will also present the Faculty Award for Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring.