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Molecular evolution: modern evidence for Darwin's theory

Monterotondo, 28 - 30 January 2009


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2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. The first ELLS LearningLAB of 2009, organised in collaboration with the "Fondazione per le Biotecnologie" (FB) of Turin, Italy, focused on the theory of evolution, approaching it from different perspectives, and examined recent findings from genomics and bioinformatics that support Darwin's original theory.

The LearningLAB was hosted by the Molecular Biotechnology Center (MBC), a brand new Institute created in Turin to house the School of Biotechnology. Fiorella Altruda (President of the School of Biotechnology), Elena Spoldi (General Secretary of the "Fondazione per le biotecnologie") and Matthias Haury (former Coordinating Manager of training activities at EMBL) gave introductory presentations on the institutes involved in the organisation of the course. Rossana De Lorenzi (Education Officer at EMBL) and Enrica Favaro (responsible for education activities at the Life Learning Centre, Torino) presented an overview of the course and introduced the speakers and the practical activities designed for the international group of teachers from Italy, Hungary, Greece, Turkey and Peru!

Day 1

The first scientific seminar was presented by Mario Giacobini – researcher at the MBC – who introduced the concept of 'artificial life' and showed how evolution and life have been translated into computational operators in order to implement artificial evolutionary systems and to study the process of evolution from a different and innovative approach. Paolo Provero – also researcher at the MBC – presented the field of 'comparative genomics', which is the study of the relationships of genome structure and function across different species. This relatively new field of biology has been crucial in defining similarities and differences between organisms at the molecular level, and in understanding their evolutionary relatedness.

In the practical activity on bioinformatics developed by Paolo Provero and Ferdinando Di Cunto, the teachers explored the potential of comparative genomics, and used the most common applications to analyse and compare DNA sequences in order to retrieve information on specific genes and their characteristic mutations in different organisms. Similarly, the molecular biology activity instructed by Enrica Favaro – developed in the frame of the Bioelearning project – consisted in the analysis of DNA sequences of a particular gene (cytocrome b) derived from different meats. The gene is characterised by several polymorphisms among different animal species that can be identified through analysis with restriction enzymes. Teachers performed DNA extraction, amplification by PCR and digestion with restriction enzymes in order to identify the origin of the meat samples.

Day 2

Rossana De Lorenzi instructed a practical activity developed by Bio-Rad's Biotechnology Explorer Programme to analyse the process of evolution at the protein level. Variations between organisms' protein profiles result from mutations of the genomes and are an indication of the different adaptation to different environments. Teachers prepared extracts of muscle proteins from unknown samples and compared their protein profiles in order to define analogies in the protein content. Based on their results, they also created evolutionary trees and compared them to published evolution data.

Dean Madden from the National Centre for Biotechnology Education (NCBE) opened the afternoon session with an overview of the educational resources available on evolution. He described the protocol of the "Investigating plant evolution kit" - a PCR-based activity - and the "DNA to Darwin" bioinformatics activity, both developed by the NCBE in order to encourage the teaching of evolution in the schools. After his presentation, Dean offered the teachers a refreshing cocktail called "the Beagle Cocktail" made with typical ingredients from places that Darwin visited during his long trip around the world. Christopher Creevey - former postdoc at the EMBL and now researcher at the Teagasc Animal Bioscience Centre in Ireland - discussed the history of the tree of life as a tool to represent the relationships between species. Chris also presented the project that he had been involved in while working at EMBL, resulting in the highest-resolution tree of evolution yet made: a summary of all the knowledge available about the genealogy of life on earth. Francesca Diella from EMBL Heidelberg gave the last talk presenting the European project SET-Routes, a network of women scientists engaged in awakening young girls' interest in science in order to tackle the problem of under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology – SET.

Day 3

Detlev Arendt, Group Leader at EMBL Heidelberg, introduced the topic of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), which compares the developmental processes of different animals and plants in order to determine the ancestral relationship between organisms and to find out how developmental processes evolved. The president of the Italian Association of Science Teachers (ANISN), Anna Pascucci, described her participation in the European educational project Volvox, a coordinated Internet-linked network for promoting innovation, exchanging knowledge and encouraging good practice to enhance bioscience education in European schools. The end of the morning was dedicated to a bioinformatics activity on molecular evolution developed by Aidan Budd and Francesca Diella, both researchers at EMBL Heidelberg. The aim of the activity was to use several bioinformatics tools to compare the structures and sequences of different haemoglobin genes (including the sickle-cell-anaemia-inducing variant).

After analysing the results of the practical activities, the teachers participated in the usual lottery where several gifts were assigned to the lucky winners: a teachers' compendium called "Evolution in perspective" published by NSTA press, a collection of DVDs on evolution ("Learning and Teaching Evolution") produced by WGBH Boston and two kits "Investigating Plant Evolution" from NCBE. In addition, every teacher received a copy of the DVD "Evolution: constant change and common threads" produced by the HHMI and a copy of the journal "Science in School" published by EIROforum.