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NIH Hosts 'Evolution' Preview

By Cynthia Delgado and Alison Davis

If the scientific community did not understand evolution as the critical framework for all of biology, researchers would be stumped to provide an explanation of why HIV drugs become resistant to medicines so alarmingly fast. The deadly HIV virus evolves in minutes to hours, outpacing the evolution of the human species by millions of years.

As this example illustrates, for many life scientists evolution is much more than a historical framework; it is an integral part of our lives today. So what role can scientists play in dispelling myths and communicating facts about evolution to the public?

"The theory of evolution is the one grand idea that explains the differences, similarities and relationships of all living things," said Irene Eckstrand, a geneticist at NIGMS. She introduced a recent preview of a seven-part documentary on the science of evolution co-produced by the WGBH Boston Science Unit and Clear Blue Sky Productions. The series aired nationwide Sept. 24-27; NIGMS and WGBH Boston cosponsored the Sept. 7 preview, held in Masur Auditorium.

Eckstrand saw the NIH preview as an opportunity for campus scientists to ready themselves for questions from the public about the role of evolution in biology and biomedical research. In spite of the nation's recent legislative and legal challenges for teaching evolution, Eckstrand said she hopes that the next generation will be well-educated about the science that profoundly affects their lives.

Cohosting the NIH program were Richard Hutton, executive producer of the Evolution Project, and Joseph Levine, the project's science editor. Hutton is the producer of other award-winning television programs such as The Brain and The Mind, and the author of nine books, including several on genetics and evolution. Levine is a Harvard graduate, well known for his popular high school and college biology texts.

On hand for the NIH preview of the PBS series on evolution are (from l) Richard Hutton, executive producer; NIGMS geneticist Irene Eckstrand; and Joseph Levine, the project's science editor.

"Cameras capture the moment," said Hutton, "but evolution doesn't happen in a moment." He laid out some of the many challenges of producing a television series on such a vast topic, pointing out the extreme difficulty of "cramming billions of years of life on earth into 8 hours." Hutton described the first episode, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," as containing many dramatic vignettes, with the remainder of the series cast in documentary format. He then led the audience through several 5- to 10-minute film clips from the series that touched on broad themes surrounding the study of evolution, many of which reflect the basis of research carried out at NIH today.

"Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is a dramatic representation of Charles Darwin's life, and the opening episode presents the conception of his evolution theory along with his concerns about the theory's social and professional consequences. A later episode, "The Evolutionary Arms Race," promises to hit close to home for many researchers working in the public health field, exploring the "survival of the fittest" concept and its relationship to our battle against microorganisms and antibiotic resistance. "Why Sex?" creatively reviews the evolutionary importance of sex and genetic variation. Other film topics include the diversity of life, extinction, the power of the modern mind and the interplay between science and religion.

Levine went on to explain the broader goals of the Evolution Project, which encompasses both the film series and many materials for educators. According to Levine, the overall goal of the project is to heighten public understanding of evolution and its importance to everyone. "Evolution theory is the single best idea anyone has ever had, that unifies and directs all the biological and biomedical sciences," he added.

Following the preview, a reception was held at the Clinical Center's Visitor Information Center, sponsored by the Office of Science Education. Audience participants gathered to ask questions and speak with the program hosts.

The Evolution preview was broadcast over the Internet; an archived videocast can be seen at http://videocast.nih.gov/ (in the Past Events section). Free copies of the Evolution Project Teacher's Guide are available from NIGMS. To obtain a copy, contact Ann Dieffenbach at dieffena@nigms.nih.gov, or phone 496-7301. More information about the Evolution Project can be found at http://pbs.org/evolution.


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