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The evolution of Darwin's theory

Monterotondo, 15 - 17 July 2009


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The course, aimed at Italian science teachers, is part of the events celebrating 200 years since Charles Darwin's birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. Aim of the course was to review the original theory of evolution (based on morphological and fossil evidence) taking into account the new molecular evidence coming from recent studies on the DNA.

Prof. Olga Rickards – Director of the Centre of Molecular Anthropology for Ancient DNA Studies at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” – presented a seminar that traced the main steps of human evolution through the DNA analysis of modern humans and our ancestors. From molecular anthropology we moved to bioinformatics: Vicky Schneider – Project Leader at the EMBL-EBI in Hinxton (UK) – illustrated the main bioinformatics tools and their applications to study molecular evolution. The hands-on session started with the extraction of DNA from several plant species in order to determine their evolutionary relationships based on the size of a chloroplast DNA fragment amplified by PCR. The activity, called “Investigating Plant Evolution”, has been devised by the National Centre for Biotechnology Education (NCBE) at the University of Reading, UK. Vicky Schneider then gave a demonstration of a computer-based activity using bioinformatic tools to solve a hypothetical crime.

The second day was entirely dedicated to practical activities. The teachers continued the NCBE activity on plant evolution and analysed the PCR results through agarose gel electrophoresis. In parallel they also started the kit developed by Biorad (Protein Profiler Module) consisting in the analysis of proteins from different fish species in order to determine their evolutionary distance. The protein content extracted from the 5 samples was loaded onto polyacrilamide gels and separated according to protein length. The bands were made visible with Coomassie staining. Due to a hitch Francesca Diella – researcher at the EMBL in Heidelberg – could not come to the course to instruct her bioinformatics activity aimed at analyzing the molecular evolution of haemoglobin. However the activity was made available online by Francesca, therefore the teachers could go through the protocol and perform the main steps.

The last seminars were introducing new topics of research derived from the consolidation of the theory of evolution. Antonella Lauri – PhD student at the EMBL in Heidelberg – presented the Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Evo-Devo), an area of molecular biology that 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. Francesca Ciccarelli – researcher at the Istituto Europeo di Oncologia (IEO) in Milano – showed how evolutionary genomics might be applied to the study of cancer, considered as a system governed by the same evolutionary laws observed by Darwin. Before lunch there was still time for discussing the results of the hands-on activities through the analyses of the agarose gels (for the NCBE kit) and the polyacrilamide gel (for the Biorad kit). After lunch the teachers stayed shortly in order to fill in the online course evaluation questionnaire.