Duke evolutionary biologist Ralph Haygood, a post-doc in Greg Wray's lab, is one of those folks who does biology with software. So, it's a natural evolution, I suppose you could say, that in his spare time, Ralph has also written a nifty little virtual life application for Facebook called Evarium.
Evarium runs in a box on your profile page any time you're on Facebook. You pick out a few of these colorful little pinwheels, squares and diatom-looking things and set them loose to whirl around in white space looking for their ideal mate. Finding a reasonable match, they pair up and spin in synchrony for a moment or two. As they part, they leave behind a tiny speck of a new organism, representing some mix of their traits. It soon grows to mature size and begins the hunt for its own ideal mate. Like any self-respecting experimentalist, you've got a big freezer where you can put these new critters in suspended animation, or even send them to your friends at other institutions!
While most Evarium users so far are evo-biology geeks, Ralph is really hoping the app catches on with some of the millions of school-age kids on Facebook. "It's best described as an educational toy, mostly fun but potentially instructive too," Ralph says. "I hope Evarium will help persuade some of them that evolution isn't necessarily personified by Charles Darwin with a somber gaze and a long white beard."