The University of Arizona

UA Science Lecture Series: Genomics Now

By College of Science, January 28, 2013

This year’s talks, beginning Jan. 30, will focus on how genomics is expanding our ability to understand life and the possibilities and challenges presented by our increasing ability to modify nature.

The University of Arizona College of Science's popular spring lecture series will present six free lectures exploring the astonishing advances in genomics research. The first lecture will be on Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in Centennial Hall on the UA campus.

From Gregor Mendel's discovery of the laws of heredity to the recognition of DNA as life's critical molecular "key," scientists have probed the role of this remarkably complex material and the code it contains. Their findings continue to expand our understanding of life.

With the genetic code of hundreds of life forms now sequenced and geometrically larger genomic datasets publicly available, scientists are able to advance research into the genetic roots of disease, how global viral pandemics occur, how transformative agricultural research can help feed our planet’s growing population, how environmental influences affect individual development, and how genetic mutation and variation impact survival at the species level.

This year's corresponding teacher education program for science teachers at the 6-12 grade levels has filled. Research Corporation for Science Advancement funds tuition for the program, which provides two hours of graduate credit.

All the Genomics Now lectures are free and open to the public. The lectures will be held at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. on the UA campus. Parking is available on a pay-per-use basis in the Tyndall Avenue Garage, 880 E. Fourth St.

The scheduled lectures:

Jan. 30: Are Genes the Software of Life?

By Dr. Fernando D. Martinez, director, BIO5 Institute; director, Arizona Respiratory Center; Swift-McNear Professor of Pediatrics and Regents' Professor

The last 20 years have been marked by an astonishing growth in our knowledge about the molecules that make up living things. Among those molecules, none has attracted more attention than DNA. The DNA code of hundreds of life forms has been sequenced. This code contains not only information needed to assemble all proteins; a myriad of bits and pieces of DNA also are involved in controlling when proteins are built and destroyed.

It is thus not surprising that DNA has been called the software of life, but the metaphor breaks down when we look more closely. Contrary to any reputable software, small random "errors" are introduced in the code each time DNA is copied in order to be transmitted to the next generation. Most often, these changes have no effect whatsoever. Almost all the remaining changes are deleterious and most likely are the cause of the many diseases that affect many human beings at some point in their lives. But a small portion of these random "errors" allow those who carry them to better adapt to the environment in which they live. And the fast and slow accumulation of those favorable "errors" is what ultimately gave rise to the immensely successful history of life on the planet.

Two indispensable conclusions arise: First, disease often is caused by the same mechanism, random mutation, that allowed us to become conscious beings, and, therefore, those of us who are healthy and can pursue happiness have a basic biological and ethical debt toward those who are not; second, the massive changes that we are introducing into the environment are making many of us sick simply because our ancestors never saw them and thus never "adopted the right genes" for them. Contrary to all other species that ever existed, therefore, we are increasingly putting our future as a species in our own hands.

Feb. 6: The Genesis of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

By Michael Worobey, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 was the most intense outbreak of disease in human history. It killed upwards of 50 million people (most in a six-week period), casting a long shadow of fear and mystery. Nearly a century later, scientists have been unable to explain why, unlike all other influenza outbreaks, it killed young adults in huge numbers. This lecture will describe how analyses of large numbers of influenza virus genomes are revealing the pathway traveled by the genes of this virus before it exploded in 1918. What emerges is a surprising tale with many players and plot lines in which echoes of prior pandemics, imprinted in the immune responses of those alive in 1918, set the stage for the catastrophe. The lecture also will discuss how resolving the mysteries of 1918 could help to prevent future pandemics and to control seasonal influenza, which quietly kills millions more every decade.

Feb. 13: Genomics and the Complexity of Life

By Michael W. Nachman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

What determines the complexity of life? Charles Darwin described how evolution produced “endless forms most beautiful,” yet he was unaware of genetics and the laws of inheritance. Our genomes provide the ultimate record of evolution, and evolution explains many fascinating aspects of our genomes. How do changes in the genome allow organisms to adapt to their environment? How do changes in the genome produce new species? Why do worms and humans have about the same number of genes? This lecture will explore how genomics has deepened our understanding of evolution in ways Darwin never could have imagined.

Feb. 20: The 9-Billion-People Question

By Rod A. Wing, Bud Antle Endowed Chair, School of Plant Sciences; director, Arizona Genomics Institute

The world’s population will grow to more than 9 billion in less than 40 years. How can farmers grow enough food to feed this population in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way? Research is now under way to create the next generation of green revolution crops -- the so called “green super crops” where “super” means a doubling or tripling of yields and “green” means a reduction in the use of water, fertilizer and pesticides. The 9-billion-people question, or 9BPQ, is one of the world’s most pressing issues of our time. Our society must realistically solve this question within the next 25 years if we are to be able to supply farmers with the seeds required to feed the future. This lecture will explore the many facets of how to feed the world and will propose a bold solution to help solve the 9BPQ.

Feb. 27: Epigenetics: Why DNA Is Not Our Destiny

By Dr. Donata Vercelli, professor of cellular and molecular medicine; director, Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases

Two twin sisters, one with and one without asthma. Two genetically identical mice, one black and lean, the other yellow and obese. Two human cells, one from the brain and the other from the skin. They look and act different, but they have the same DNA sequence. All of this is the work of epigenetics. Much emphasis has been placed on DNA and genes as repositories of the code designed to transmit information and dictate biological programs. However, developmental trajectories and responses to environmental cues are – and need to be – highly plastic. This plasticity is made possible by epigenetic mechanisms that enhance or silence gene expression at the right time in the right environmental context but do not change the DNA sequence. Thus the code inscribed in our DNA is necessary but not sufficient to recapitulate our biological identity and determine our biological destiny. This lecture will explore how understanding epigenetics will advance our understanding of human biology and disease.

March 6: Genomics Tomorrow

This panel discussion will bring together the series' five esteemed presenters to address the complex and varied issues associated with genomics research and its potential impact on individuals and society. At the discussion's core will be the questions of mankind's role and responsibilities in choosing to "modify" nature. Topics will include: the risks and rewards associated with the new norms of pre-natal genetic screening; the impact of readily available low-cost genetic profiling; global opportunities posed by genetically modified plants and other organisms; and the potentials of a greatly expanded knowledge-base of infectious diseases and their treatments. The discussion will be moderated by College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz. Audience members will be able to submit questions in advance for panel members' consideration.

Funding for the College of Science Spring 2013 Lecture Series is provided by the Arizona Daily Star; Carondelet Health Network; Galileo Circle; Godat Design; Holualoa Companies; Miraval Resort & Spa; Raytheon; Research Corporation for Science Advancement; Tucson Electric Power; and Ventana Medical Systems, Inc.

Contacts

College of Science

520-621-4040

uasci@email.arizona.edu