(Photography by Narong Jongsirikul)

Faculty research

“Genomic parasites” jumpstart the evolution of pregnancy, a UChicago economist recommends paying NCAA college athletes, some regulations make power plants less efficient, and neural responses predict generosity in three- to five-year-olds.

Evolution of the stork

The vast genetic shifts that marked the evolution of pregnancy in mammals involved thousands of genes recruited to the uterus from other systems—brain, digestive, circulatory—repurposed to new functions, such as suppressing the maternal immune system and sending signals between mother and fetus. Shedding light on how organisms develop novel structures, an international team including UChicago geneticist Vincent Lynch cataloged genes expressed in the wombs of 13 different animals, including mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The emergence of pregnancy was driven by ancient “genomic parasites” called transposons: fragments of DNA that can jump around in the genome. Ancient mammalian transposons had binding sites for the reproductive hormone progesterone that regulated the recruitment of genes to the uterus and activated them. The research was published online January 29 in Cell Reports.

Play for pay

In a study calling today’s college athletic system “inefficient, inequitable, and very likely unsustainable”—as well as a possible violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act—UChicago economist Allen Sanderson and a Vanderbilt University colleague recommend paying college athletes. Published in the Winter 2015 Journal of Economic Perspectives, the study finds that NCAA remuneration caps—restricted to room, board, tuition, fees, and books—hold down benefits for top-performing athletes, while coaches and athletic department personnel receive disproportionately high salaries. They also note that students’ exemption from labor laws allows universities to dictate long work hours and the NCAA to steadily expand the number of regular-season and play-off games with minimal marginal operating cost. Recent lawsuits by student-athletes and pressure from regulators may help force a change, the authors argue, reducing the NCAA’s “monopoly power.”

Utility bills

Chicago Harris economist Steve Cicala, AB’04, investigated data on almost $1 trillion worth of power-plant fuel deliveries to analyze the effectiveness of state regulations. In the January American Economic Review, Cicala, also on the faculty of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, reported his results: deregulated power plants save roughly $1 billion a year compared to their regulated counterparts. That’s because unregulated power plants can shop around on the open market for cheaper coal. Also, political influence, poorly designed reimbursement rates, and a lack of transparency make coal purchases for regulated plants more inefficient. “It’s critical,” Cicala wrote, “to know what makes for ‘bad’ regulations when designing new ones.”

Little helpers

Young children are natural helpers, but their outlook on sharing is often more selfish than selfless. In a study in the January 5 Current Biology, UChicago neuroscientist Jean Decety and Jason Cowell, a postdoc in Decety’s Child NeuroSuite lab, analyzed generosity in three- to five-year-olds. They recorded brain waves and tracked eye movements of 57 children as they watched videos of cartoon-like characters helping or hurting each other. Then the children played a “dictator game,” deciding whether to keep or share stickers they’d been given. After seeing the helpful or hurtful behavior in the videos, the children exhibited both immediate, automatic neural responses and later, more controlled ones. The latter—choosing whether to share the stickers—was more indicative of generosity. The study was the first to identify specific brain markers that predict generosity and to link children’s implicit moral evaluations to outward moral behavior.