Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

A major new work overturning our assumptions about how evolution worksEarth's natural history is full of fascinating instances of convergence: phenomena like eyes and wings and tree-climbing lizards that have evolved independently, multiple times. But evolutionary biologists also point out many examples of contingency, cases where the tiniest change--a random mutation or a...

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Title:Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution
Author:Jonathan B. Losos
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Edition Language:English

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution Reviews

  • Chantal Lyons

    "Improbable Destinies" is personable, easy to follow, and fascinating - well-worth a read by anyone with at least a passing interest in biology and evolution.

    From beginning to end, Losos works hard to make the studies and theories in the book as vivid as possible. We get to meet the people behind the facts and dive into their trials and tribulations, from dangerous rainforest treks to lassoing lizards to battling through snowstorms. It's pretty amusing in places, and you can't help but admire th

    "Improbable Destinies" is personable, easy to follow, and fascinating - well-worth a read by anyone with at least a passing interest in biology and evolution.

    From beginning to end, Losos works hard to make the studies and theories in the book as vivid as possible. We get to meet the people behind the facts and dive into their trials and tribulations, from dangerous rainforest treks to lassoing lizards to battling through snowstorms. It's pretty amusing in places, and you can't help but admire the sheer tenacity of so many of the scientists.

    The subject matter is the real star, of course. And Losos reveals the science extremely clearly, perfectly pitched for lay people like myself. I might have already know that American and African porcupines aren't at all related, but I learned a huge amount more, and it was deeply satisfying. The author also heads up the "so what?" question by explaining why studying the predictability and repeatability of evolution can benefit both humans and threatened species. And what makes things even more interesting is how Losos subtly moderates his own stance over the course of the book.

    Strongly recommended!

  • Susan Cejka

    Splendorous! (lifted straight for the book,)accessible, informative and entertaining. Losos explains the many paths of evolutionary biology. convergence or or contingency. Kangaroos which are essentially deer have evolved nowhere but Australia. then of course there is the most interesting animal the duck billed platypus uniquely designed for its environment and in Losos's own words a one off.

    i'm no academic but i learned more in this book that i ever learned in biology and loved every minute of

    Splendorous! (lifted straight for the book,)accessible, informative and entertaining. Losos explains the many paths of evolutionary biology. convergence or or contingency. Kangaroos which are essentially deer have evolved nowhere but Australia. then of course there is the most interesting animal the duck billed platypus uniquely designed for its environment and in Losos's own words a one off.

    i'm no academic but i learned more in this book that i ever learned in biology and loved every minute of reading it: including 'the lizard Olympics', pygmy elephants, and the Solenodon (you will have to read the book to find out what it is)

  • Carl Zimmer

    I was asked to read this book, and provided this blurb:

    "Is evolution a story foretold? Or is it little more than the rolls of DNA's dice? In

    , Jonathan Losos tackles these fascinating questions not with empty philosophizing, but with juicy tales from the front lines of scientific research. Drunk flies, fast-evolving lizards, mutating microbes, and hypothetical humanoid dinosaurs all grace the pages of this wonderfully thought-provoking book."

    The question of how predictable e

    I was asked to read this book, and provided this blurb:

    "Is evolution a story foretold? Or is it little more than the rolls of DNA's dice? In

    , Jonathan Losos tackles these fascinating questions not with empty philosophizing, but with juicy tales from the front lines of scientific research. Drunk flies, fast-evolving lizards, mutating microbes, and hypothetical humanoid dinosaurs all grace the pages of this wonderfully thought-provoking book."

    The question of how predictable evolution is an old one. I was impressed to see how much evidence scientists can now bring to bear on it, and how well Losos wove it all into a compelling narrative.

  • Brian Clegg

    There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

    The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the com

    There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

    The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the combination of the writing style and the topic make the book well worth reading, but there are some drawbacks, particularly with the first 150 pages or so. Arguably these suffer rather from the 'Is it a book or an article?' syndrome - there really isn't enough going on in them. What we are told is that often there will be convergence on similar biological solutions, but equally sometimes you'll get an oddity (think duckbilled platypus). The vast majority of those 150 pages involve going through many examples of both possible outcomes, making the reader inclined to yell 'Okay, I get it! Move on!'

    Things get much better when Locos tells us about his own attempts in experimental evolution - one of the central threads of the book, that when ideas moved from Darwinian evolution over eons to the possibility of very quick adaptation, it was possible to put evolution to the test experimentally over periods of years. Cleverly, Locos picked up on a pre-existing experiment looking at something totally different that had involved starting lizard colonies on small islands. He was able to experiment with their development and adaptation to environmental issues and show that the populations converged on similar solutions (at least until population after population was wiped out by a hurricane).

    This increased level of interest continues to a degree when we get onto other people's experiments with evolution, though again we get something of a repetition problem. The trouble is, I think, partly that Losos is so immersed in his subject that he assumes we will find every detail fascinating too, and that science requires lots of boring repetition to establish a theory. This doesn't necessarily make for engaging reading, and a good science writer has to get a feel for when to use a few examples rather than plodding through endless detail as a scientist would expect to do.

    Despite these issues (you can always skip a bit), I repeatedly come back to the warm, approachable Locos style and the genuinely interesting (even to a non-biologist) aspects of how much evolution will tend to converge on similar solutions to environmental pressures, but how much novelties will also tend to arise - meaning the answer to the old Stephen Jay Gould 'Replay life's tape' idea is that sometimes it will be very similar, sometimes it won't. Incidentally, the blurb suggests this focuses on humans and whether life on other planets would end up fairly humanoid - that is certainly mentioned in the text, but it's far more about lizards and the like.

    This is a book that deserves to be widely read.

  • Craig Werner

    Delightful, especially if you've been following the Stephen Jay Gould vs. Simon Conway Morris celebrity death match (okay, that's possibly an overstatement) since it started unfolding with the publication of Gould's Wonderful Life. If that doesn't mean anything to you, you may still like Improbable Destinies--if only for the nifty illustrations--but I'd recommend starting with Wonderful Life and Conway Morris's Crucible of Creation.

    The core issue at stake is whether the pathways followed by evol

    Delightful, especially if you've been following the Stephen Jay Gould vs. Simon Conway Morris celebrity death match (okay, that's possibly an overstatement) since it started unfolding with the publication of Gould's Wonderful Life. If that doesn't mean anything to you, you may still like Improbable Destinies--if only for the nifty illustrations--but I'd recommend starting with Wonderful Life and Conway Morris's Crucible of Creation.

    The core issue at stake is whether the pathways followed by evolution are convergent (Conway Morris) or contingent (Gould). To oversimplify a bit, was the development of something very like human beings on earth more or less inevitable?

    The argument in its public form began when Gould used Conway Morris's research on a geological formation known as the Burgess Shale as the foundation for an argument that life could have turned out very very differently. (Both Wonderful Life and Improbable Destinies include illustrations of the life forms that existed then that are really fascinating; mostly they've died out, although Locos includes some new information I hadn't been aware of indicating that a few of them have relatively obscure lineages still around.) Partly because Gould's such an effective literary stylist, his visions had an immense immediate impact and made Conway Morris a scientific celebrity. Only problem was that Conway Morris himself came to disagree, strongly, with Gould's interpretation of his own research's significance. Along with a number of other evolutionary scientists, Conway Morris developed a counter perspective emphasizing that there are only so many solutions to particular evolutionary problems and that as a result evolutionary paths will come together, converge.

    As a fan of Gould--and sci fi because contingency opens up many more possibilities-- I was pulling for Gould while really wanting to see where things stand almost two decades after Conway Morris's rejoinder; I haven't followed the technical literature beyond an occasional piece in Science or Nature. Through the first part of Improbably Destinies, it appeared that Losos would come down with convergence. That's tribute in part to what a nicely balanced job he does presenting the positions, because by the end, it's fairly clear that he sees the weight of evidence coming down with Gould and contingency. One very useful section concerns an ambiguity of what exactly Gould meant by "contingency;" his oft-used metaphor of rerunning the tape of life and seeing what happened doesn't quite say what he meant or at least was unclear about what conditions had to be held steady.

    One heads up on the book. Aware of the angle many readers, like me, will come from, Losos starts with he crowd pleasing "big animals"--dinosaurs and marsupials and our good friend the platypus. But the center of the book, scientifically an in terms of page count, involves the nuts and bolts of both field and laboratory experiments designed to test the "repeatability" hypothesis. He writes clearly, but there's some technical detail about experiment design and appropriately cautious reports on outcomes that damps the drama and slows the pace. Worth it if you're really committed to knowing something about the science, but I can imagine a more generalist reader wanting to read part 1 and then skimming until the last two chapters, which bring it home.

  • Book

    Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos

    “Improbable Destinies” is an interesting exploration of evolutionary biology. Professor Jonathan B. Losos provides readers with a behind-the-scenes access to testing ideas about evolution, out in nature and in real time. This stimulating 382-page book includes twelve chapters and is broken out into the following three parts: Part One. Nature’s Doppelgangers, Part Two. Experiments in the Wild, and Part Three. Evol

    Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos

    “Improbable Destinies” is an interesting exploration of evolutionary biology. Professor Jonathan B. Losos provides readers with a behind-the-scenes access to testing ideas about evolution, out in nature and in real time. This stimulating 382-page book includes twelve chapters and is broken out into the following three parts: Part One. Nature’s Doppelgangers, Part Two. Experiments in the Wild, and Part Three. Evolution Under the Microscope.

    Positives:

    1. An engaging, well-written, well-researched book with even a touch of humor.

    2. An interesting topic, what we know about evolution and how we know what we know. “This is a book about how scientists study these topics, how tools from DNA sequencing to fieldwork in remote corners of the world are synthesized to understand the evolutionary origin of life around us. And it’s also about how science itself evolves, how new ideas are born and how research programs develop to test them. In particular, I’ll focus on the rise of experimental methods to studying evolution, an approach that was inconceivable for more than a century after Darwin’s time.”

    3. Losos is an engaging author who clearly loves evolutionary biology. The book pays homage to the scientists who came before him and are currently contributing to the field.

    4. Good use of charts and diagrams that effectively complements the narrative.

    5. The human reality. “It wasn’t until the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that Team Mammal got its evolutionary opportunity—and we certainly took advantage of it, quickly proliferating to fill the empty ecosphere, transforming the last sixty-six million years into the Age of Mammals. But we owe all of that to the asteroid.”

    6. For the love of evolution. “There’s a commonsense explanation, the one Darwin proposed. If species live in similar environments and face similar challenges to their survival and reproduction, then natural selection will lead to the evolution of similar traits: the existence of large seeds is a resource for birds, requiring big beaks to crack them open, and so similar, big-beaked birds evolve in numerous seedy locations; threatened by big cats, oversized rodents repeatedly evolve a spiny defense, as effective against lions in Africa as it is against pumas in the Americas.”

    7. Defines what evolutionary biology is. “EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY is unlike many sciences in that its basic findings about the history of life cannot be derived from first principles. It is not a deductive science. You can’t go to the chalkboard and derive the formula for a platypus. Rather, it is an inductive science in which general principles emerge from the accumulation of many case studies.”

    8. Presents current views within evolutionary biology. “In any case, with the enthusiasm of a convert, Conway Morris has become the leading proponent of the view that convergent evolution is the dominant story behind life’s diversity. “Evolutionary convergence is completely ubiquitous,” he has said. “Wherever you look you see it.” Consequently, he concludes, “Rerun the tape of life as often as you like, and the end result will be much the same.””

    9. Interesting observations. “Geneticists have discovered the changes responsible for skin color and it turns out that the light coloration of people of Asian descent results from different mutations than those causing light color in Europeans. These genetic differences strongly suggest that light skin color evolved independently—convergently—in different populations as they colonized northern areas.”

    10. Throughout the book, Losos is explaining progress within evolutionary biology. “The other explanation for evolutionary one-offs is that natural selection is either not as predictable or as powerful as some make it out to be. That is, even when species experience identical environments, they might not evolve in the same way.” “A key reason for lack of convergence is that there may be more than one way to adapt to a problem posed by the environment.”

    11. Natural selection explained to an engineer like myself. “Natural selection, Jacob said, is not like an engineer, constructing the optimal solution to the problem at hand. Rather, he said, think about a tinkerer, a handyman who makes use of whatever materials are available to fashion whatever solution is feasible—not the best solution possible, but the best attainable under the circumstances.” “Natural selection has no foresight—it won’t favor a detrimental feature just because it is an early step on a path leading to an ultimately superior condition. Rather, for a feature to evolve by natural selection, every step along the way must be an improvement on what came before it—natural selection will never favor a worse condition, even if it’s only a transient evolutionary phase.”

    12. The speed of evolution, is it really slow? “In the last half century, however, we’ve learned that Darwin got this one wrong. Far from moving imperceptibly slowly, evolution sometimes—perhaps often—moves at light speed.” “THE MESSAGE from all of these studies is clear: when the environment changes, species can adapt very quickly. Quickly enough to observe with our eyes. Quickly enough to document during the course of a five-year research grant.”

    13. Provides many case studies in the wild. “Endler had shown that guppy evolution was predictable. Not only can we understand why some guppies are colorful and others aren’t, but if we re-create the selective conditions—in the lab or in the field—they will evolve exactly as expected.”

    14. The evolution of plants. “Sure enough, plants grew much better on their home plot than on plots with different soil chemistry and vegetation characteristics. The conclusion was clear: over the course of a century, plants had adapted to the conditions they experienced on their own subplots.”

    15. Evolution under the microscope. “On February 24, 1988, a sunny and unseasonably warm Southern California day, Lenski picked up a typical lab petri dish. E. coli, like other bacteria, grows asexually, each cell simply dividing into two identical daughter cells. When an E. coli cell is placed on the surface of a petri dish, it starts to divide, and divide, and divide, eventually producing a small mound of millions of cells, all identical descendants of that first founding cell. These mounds are called colonies. The bottom of the dish Lenski picked up was covered with a layer of goopy, translucent nutrient gelatin, with dozens of such colonies growing on its surface. All those colonies had grown from single cells of an E. coli lab strain called REL606.”

    16. How evolution works. “Two considerations are relevant. First, to evolve, populations require genetic variation. No variation, no ability to change—natural selection, after all, works by favoring one variant over another; if there’s no variation, then selection has nothing with which to work.”

    17. The power of microbiology. “These caveats notwithstanding, it’s fair to conclude that there’s a lot of repeatability to microbial evolution experiments. The Lenski and Rainey experiments are the best known, but in general the others give a similar message: populations adapt at roughly the same rate and they do so—as far as we can tell—primarily by evolving similar adaptations. They tend to use the same sets of genes to accomplish these parallel outcomes. These results suggest that evolution follows the same path time and again, at least at the macroscopic level—identical populations exposed to identical selection pressures usually will evolve in very similar ways.”

    18. Philosophy in science. “Evolutionary biology is a particular challenge to philosophers of science. It does not fit the standard notion of how science works—itself a caricature—in which a crucial experiment decisively settles the question. Rather, evolutionary biology involves history, figuring out what happened in the past, asking questions not amenable to the experimental method (what experiment can explain the evolution of a giraffe?).

    19. Drunken fruit flies. “one of the things that a fruit does as it rots is ferment, producing alcohol. As a result, the flies live in an environment thick with alcohol fumes, like spending your life in a brewery. And what happens if a fly overdoes it, soaking up too much alcohol? It gets drunk, just like you and me (well, at least like me): at first it runs around excitedly, bumping into things. Then it stumbles, it staggers, and it falls down. Eventually it falls over and doesn’t get up.”

    20. The evolution of resistance. “The evolution of resistance to pesticides (construed broadly to include insecticides and herbicides*) shares many parallels with the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Like many microbes, pests have evolved a wide variety of ways to defeat our chemical arsenal, including changes in behavior that minimize contact with the pesticide; alterations in the exterior skin to keep the pesticide out; development of means to convert the pesticide to something else, sequester it in an unimportant part of the body, or quickly excrete it; or modifications in the molecular structure targeted by the pesticide. Because of these myriad possibilities, populations of the same species often adapt in different ways when exposed to a particular pesticide.”

    21. An excellent closing chapter that discusses whether we humans are inevitable. “The fact is, we humans are an evolutionary singleton—nothing else like us has ever evolved on Earth anywhere, any time. The ubiquity of convergent evolution in general would seem to provide scant support for our evolutionary inevitability.”

    22. Notes provided and linked.

    Negatives:

    1. Even though the book is accessible and interesting, you really have to be a biologist enthusiast to enjoy this book. My humble opinion.

    2. A personal frustration is the lack of consensus clarity on topics discussed. As a non-biologist I was at times confused with a given outcome. Losos would start one way only to divert the reader in another more compelling direction and at the end of the topical journey I wasn’t sure what the current scientific consensus is and whether the author was hedging or not.

    3. A bit repetitive.

    4. No formal bibliography.

    In summary, a very good book that will appeal to lovers of experimental biology. Losos is engaging and clearly loves his field of work and that rubs off, that said I was a little frustrated with the lack of conviction or lack of clarity on scientific consensus. Lovers of biology, enjoy, I recommend it.

    Further suggestions: “Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry Coyne, “Why Evolution Works (And Creationism Fails)” by Matt Young and Paul K. Strode, “Your Inner Fish…” by Neil Shubin, “Why Darwin Matters” by Michael Shermer, “What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters” by Donald R. Prothero, “Undeniable” by Bill Nye”, “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll, “What Evolution Is” by Ernst Mayr, “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” by Nick Lane, “Only a Theory” by Kenneth R. Miller, and “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins.

  • Nikki

    The question Losos asks, and tries to answer, is this: can we predict evolution? Are certain things inevitable in development — birds, humans, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc? He writes engagingly about field work, experiments, thought experiments, the various theories and people who have supported them… I definitely want to do more reading on this.

    Am I convinced? Well, I’m not sure Losos is convinced that evolution can be predicted in detail; he presents some good evidence that suggests that yo

    The question Losos asks, and tries to answer, is this: can we predict evolution? Are certain things inevitable in development — birds, humans, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc? He writes engagingly about field work, experiments, thought experiments, the various theories and people who have supported them… I definitely want to do more reading on this.

    Am I convinced? Well, I’m not sure Losos is convinced that evolution can be predicted in detail; he presents some good evidence that suggests that you can predict the sorts of changes in gene function that will be beneficial in a certain environment, but that you can’t predict exactly how those changes will come about. Sometimes one gene might be altered, sometimes another. The phenotype is predictable (unsurprisingly: look for what would benefit the species in breeding successfully) but the genotype is not, unless it’s a fairly simple case of one particular molecular switch needing to be flipped on or off. There is a great deal of contingency in the process of evolution: Gould was (at least to some extent) correct in suggesting that we can’t “rewind the tape of life” and then see things proceed in exactly the same way.

    As with determinism in any sense, I generally believe that if all factors were known, we would also know the result. I’m just not sure we can know those factors (and I dislike and squirm away from applying it to human ethics — our actions may be caused by previous events, but we don’t experience the process that way, so it’s irrelevant in how to be moral) — especially given events on a quantum level.

  • Nick Davies

    This started off absolutely fascinatingly, but waned a little towards the middle. I guess unfortunately it is a consequence of science books of this type - as wonderfully written and witty as this was, I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first hundred or so pages of this (where the key concepts of evolutionary biology were explained and plenty of examples given in illustration) than out of the middle chapters where the author goes in to a lot more detail about his own research, and about some

    This started off absolutely fascinatingly, but waned a little towards the middle. I guess unfortunately it is a consequence of science books of this type - as wonderfully written and witty as this was, I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first hundred or so pages of this (where the key concepts of evolutionary biology were explained and plenty of examples given in illustration) than out of the middle chapters where the author goes in to a lot more detail about his own research, and about some (admittedly very important, just less readable) bacterial genetics. Certainly a very complete, well-explained and readable book, definitely there were lots of sections in the latter half of the book which were enlightening and intriguing, but these were spaced more widely than in the impactful opening chapters and the decent summations at the end. I think perhaps in the middle the author's points were laboured a little too lengthily.

  • Richard Carter

    The late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

    Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of

    where different species evolve strik

    The late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

    Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of

    where different species evolve strikingly similar features in similar circumstances. A classic example is the similar body shapes of dolphins, sharks, ichthyosaurs, and (at more of a stretch) penguins: these predators’ ‘designs’ enable them to move quickly under water. If mammals, fish, ichthyosaurs, and birds evolved such similar shapes for moving at speed in the same environment, the argument goes, evolution must, to some extent, be predictable.

    Those who maintain that evolution is more predictable than we might suppose sometimes go so far as to claim that upright, bipedal, intelligent life was almost inevitable on Earth. Had it not been for that pesky asteroid, they say, the world would now, quite possibly, be being ruled by dinosaurian, rather than mammalian, humanoids. This despite the fact that, as far as we know, upright, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs failed to evolve in the 180-million years that dinosaurs actually did rule the earth.

    Jonathon Losos's interesting book sets out to explore both the phenomenon of convergent evolution, and the possibility of performing experiments to assess evolutionary predictions. In the first part of the book, he describes many examples of convergent evolution. In subsequent sections, he describes experiments in the wild, and in more controlled environments, to determine whether the accuracy of various evolutionary predictions can be tested.

    Although convergent evolution is a genuinely fascinating phenomenon, it is considerably less remarkable when the species in question are closely related. When presented with similar environmental challenges, is it really at all surprising when closely related species evolve similar solutions? Evolution can only tinker with what is already there; how many fundamentally different tweaks can be made to closely related lizards, for example, to help them evade a new predator? In fairness to Losos, he makes this point more than once, but, to this non-expert at least, it seemed as if more might have been made of it. There is a world of a difference between two species of stickleback, to cite another example, evolving brighter colours in the absence of predators, and dinosaurs evolving into intelligent humanoids. Even if small-scale convergent evolution of closely related species is common, extrapolating to claim that the evolution of intelligent humanoids is almost inevitable is another thing entirely.

    Sensibly, Losos doesn't spend too much time examining arguments about putative humanoid dinosaurs—although he does eventually make his own position clear. This book is primarily about the experiments: how scientists have begun to test evolutionary predictions, and to assess how particular examples of convergent evolution come about. Both of which strike me as far more interesting and useful than coming up with untestable hypotheses about where dinosaurs might have gone next.

    An entertaining book on an interesting subject.

  • Carlos

    I was disappointed with this book, I basically read a 350 page book to learn what I and almost everyone else knows about evolution, it cannot be controlled , it cannot be predicted and we have no way of knowing a 100 % what factors affect it and how life could have evolved in different environments other than the Earth. I just basically described this whole book for you . Good for a beginner , not so much for someone with some background in evolutionary science.

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