URI to sponsor lecture series to celebrate Charles Darwin anniversaries

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 14, 2009 – As part of the global celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species, the University of Rhode Island will host a public lecture series featuring three noted biologists who will address evolutionary approaches to various aspects of modern biology and Darwin’s influence on 21st century science.

The lectures are free and open to the public and will be held in the auditorium of the URI Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences at 7:30 p.m.

“The invited speakers each take a different approach to studying evolution, using molecular techniques that could not even be imagined in Darwin’s time, but that draw upon the central tenets of Darwinian evolution to understand biological complexity,” said Christopher Lane, assistant professor of biological sciences and co-organizer of the lecture series with Professor Jacqueline Webb.

“The legacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is central to modern biological inquiry and discovery,” added Webb.

The lecture series will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 24 with a presentation by Michael Bell, professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, discussing “Darwinian Gradualism and How the Stickleback Lost Its Pelvis.” Bell studies micro-evolutionary processes in fishes, and he will speak about his research into evolutionary changes in populations of the threespine stickleback, a fish that can be found in Rhode Island waters and has become a model system for studying microevolution.

According to Bell, the threespine stickleback exhibits major morphological differences both within and among populations. These differences are comparable to interspecific differences in many groups of organisms and can evolve over short periods of time. Therefore, it provides an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of “species-level” differences using contemporary populations.

Bell’s interest in sticklebacks started when, as a freshman at the University of California, San Diego, he happened to collect fossil sticklebacks with differences in their pelvis size. This became the basis of his research for graduate degrees at UCLA. He began studying stickleback populations in Cook Inlet, Alaska, in 1990, which led to the publication of his book The Evolutionary Biology of the Threespine Stickleback and his involvement in the sequencing of the stickleback genome in 2006.

The other speakers in the lecture series are:

– Oct. 19, Margaret McFall-Ngai, professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, whose presentation is entitled “In Sickness and in Health: Our Co-Dependence with our Beneficial Microbial Partners.” This lecture is sponsored by the URI College of Pharmacy.

– Nov. 16, Debashish Bhattacharya, professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University, on “Genomic Approaches to Understanding Red Tide.”

The lecture series is sponsored by the University’s Alexander M. Cruickshank Endowed Lectureship, the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the College of Pharmacy, the Honors Program, and the URI chapters of Sigma Xi and Phi Beta Kappa. Each of the speakers will also give a research seminar at noon on the day of their visit and will be available for discussions with both faculty and students.

For additional information, contact Dr. Christopher Lane at clane@mail.uri.edu or 401-874-2683.