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Natural Selection, Immortal Genes and DNA Take Center Stage at Darwin Day

For its 2007 Darwin Day celebration, which honors the achievements of pioneering evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, Duquesne University is bringing the forensic study of genes to campus.

Dr. Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology, genetics and medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be the featured speaker at the annual Darwin Day event on Friday, Feb. 9.  He’ll discuss his book, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, which addresses how animals continue to evolve by making accidental genetic mutations a permanent part of a species’ DNA if a trait helps ensure survival.   These DNA changes accumulate and can be used to reconstruct the evolutionary history of different species.

“Dr. Carroll questions why there is so much controversy when DNA is used as forensic evidence in the study of evolution,” says Dr. Mary Alleman, an associate professor of biology at Duquesne who helped to coordinate Darwin Day. “In criminal trials, DNA is viewed as strong evidence that can exonerate or convict someone. But, people question DNA evidence when it is used to prove a lineage in the study of evolution.”

In the past, biologists have primarily relied on the fossil record to study evolution. Carroll instead has analyzed DNA to determine how new animal species develop and evolve. In fact, he and others have found evidence that most of the world’s animals evolved from a common ancestor—a primitive, worm-like animal—whose DNA had the potential to grow appendages, such as legs, arms, claws and fins.  Some of the genes contained in that ancestor are so important for development that they are essentially immortal: the same ones exist in flies, worms, and humans.  Others that have lost their function have become molecular “fossils” that can be used just like traditional fossils to infer how a species evolved.

Carroll’s past books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, which was selected as one of the top science books of 2005 by Discover magazine. He also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Wisconsin. Carroll has received the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Shaw Scientist Award of the Milwaukee Foundation and has delivered numerous honorary lectureships. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was named one of America’s most promising leaders under 40 by Time magazine in 1994.

Free and open to the public, Carroll’s presentation will begin at 7 p.m. in the Pappert Lecture Hall in the Bayer Learning Center. An open discussion and reception will follow.  For more information on the event, call 412.396.6332.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.