Darwin Day: not just for biologists

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Photo credit: Jeanette Blain | News Editor | [email protected]

The Biology Department held its annual Darwin Day celebration Feb. 10 to honor Charles Darwin and remind students of the importance of evolution.

UVU, along with hundreds of universities and entities around the world, honored the “Father of Evolution” with displays in the Science Atrium, a keynote speaker, and birthday cake.

Heath Ogden, biology professor and co-organizer of the event, said the Biology Department decided that celebrating Darwin Day annually brings to light the importance of evolution for everyone, not just biologists.

“We understand disease better because we understand evolution,” said Ogden. “We understand who we are better because of evolution.”

Ogden noted that each year, the organizers bring in a guest speaker to help students see the relevance of evolution in today’s world. This year, they chose Lisa M. Abegglen, a researcher from Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah to give her address titled “Evolution’s Solution to Cancer Risk: Guardians of the Elephant Genome.”

In an interview before her address, Abegglen said she thought that Darwin Day is important because it gets people thinking about evolution.

“What I’m going to talk about today is a really great example of how evolutionary biology can inform human health,” she said.

Abegglen and her colleagues study pediatric cancer and other special types of cancer, like leukemia, with a special interest in figuring out who gets cancer and why. Among other things, the team performs genomic analyses of germline DNA, the DNA we’re born with, to see if there are any factors that might lead to a higher risk of developing cancer. If those risk factors can be identified, then early screening may allow for early detection of tumors, the time when they are most treatable.

According to Abegglen, elephants are resistant to cancer. This resistance is based on their genetic code and the evolutionary history behind that code. For example, the team discovered that elephants have more cells that undergo apoptosis, or cell death, seemingly because of a gene responsible for monitoring DNA damage inside the cell. In simple terms, when apoptosis happens to dangerous (i.e. cancerous) cells, it may play a part in the elephant’s resistance to cancer.

Morgan Abbott, botany major and vice president of the Botany Club, thinks the celebration is a great setting for conversation about evolution.

“There’s a lot of discussion about Darwin, especially in Utah County, so I feel like Darwin Day’s a great way to get people to care that wouldn’t normally care about science and evolution.”

Heath Ogden quoted Theodosius Dobzhansky, a famous evolutionary biologist, to sum up the importance of evolution: “Nothing makes sense in biology except in light of evolution.”