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Cementing the place of evolution at UCL

By Katherine Aitchison, on 2 November 2011

In April 2011 the geographic split that has divided the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment (GEE) for many years was brought to an end when approximately 90 academic staff, students and support staff moved from Wolfson House to the newly refurbished Darwin Building on Gower Street. The move brought them together with the UCL Genetics Institute (UGI) which is to become a hub for statistical genetic and bioinformatics research.

Yesterday marked the completion of this £5.5 million project when the Darwin Building was officially reopened by the UCL Provost. The event included a mini-symposium entitled “What can evolution tell us about today?” before Professor Steve Jones invited the Provost to cut the ribbon and declare the building open for business.

Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost, UCL, cuts the ribbon to re-open the Darwin Building

First to speak at the symposium was Dr Nick Lane, the Provost’s Venture Research Fellow and a member of GEE. He gave a brief overview of his work, which looks at the importance of the mitochondrial genome to evolution of complex organisms such as ourselves. The mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the cell and originated from bacteria that were engulfed by other cells many millions of years ago. Today all of our cells contain many of these mitochondria which provide the energy needed by the cell to function. Mitochondria contain a very rudimentary genome, which includes some of the essential genes needed to produce energy. Dr Lane’s research investigates the selection pressures which work on these mitochondrial genes and how these “cells within cells” can drive the evolution of large, complex species.

The second speaker was François Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology at UGI. He showed us some impressive computer simulations that can be used to map the spread of humanity out of Africa and across the world. He showed how complex mathematical and computational models can be combined with archaeological evidence to investigate the many hypotheses about man’s colonisation of the planet. In particular he told us about a project that he had been involved with in which a 100 year old lock of Aboriginal Australian hair had been sequenced and had been used to support the theory that it took two waves of migration to colonise Australia.

Our final speaker was Dr Finn Werner of the Department of Structural and Molecular Biology. Rather than looking at the evolution of whole cells or organisms, his work focuses on changes in protein structure and function. Specifically, he has looked at a family of proteins which are found in all three kingdoms of life (bacteria, eukaryotes and archaea), the RNA polymerases. He has shown that all RNA polymerases have a structure which consists of a core unit, common to organisms in every kingdom, with additional modules in eukaryotes and Achaea that are not found in bacteria. By looking at the differences in the modules between species, we can see how one species has evolved from the next, while the core unit shows that every living organism in the world can trace its roots back to a single common ancestor.

As Dr Werner finished his talk, the time had come for the official opening of the Darwin Building and the provost was handed the ceremonial golden scissors with which to cut the ribbon and declare the building open for business.

The three talks at the symposium showed three very different ways in which evolution is still being studied today and underlined the incredible technological advances that have paved the way for such research. However they also highlighted how much we have yet to learn – Professor Balloux did not include a conclusions slide in his presentation because, as he said, it is too early to draw any conclusions, as too much has still to be learnt.

To me, that was a perfect way to conclude, indicating as it does the very important place evolution still holds in the study of our world and the reason that this project is so crucial. I can’t help thinking that if Darwin were here today to witness the incredible research going on he would have been amazed by how far we’ve come, and I’m sure that the new Darwin Building has a long future of ground-breaking science before it.

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