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Teaching old genomes new tricks

RIVERSIDE, Calif. What are transposable elements, what role do they play, and what percentage of the genome of organisms do they comprise? Is there an explanation for the genetic diversity we see around us? Why, for example, are corn kernels spotted? What is the genetic basis for this spotted trait?

World-class geneticist Susan Wessler will give a free public lecture at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 14, at the University of California, Riverside that will answer the above questions and, in the process, also discuss the work of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock and how a seemingly trivial discovery by her started a revolution in biology.

The hour-long lecture, titled "The Dynamic Genome: Unintelligent Design," will take place in Rooms D-E, University Extension Center (UNEX). Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Seating is open.

Wessler's lecture will be introduced by a science teacher from one of the local school districts, and will end with a question-and-answer session. Parking at UNEX will be free for lecture attendees.

Wessler holds a University of California President's Chair and is a distinguished professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences. She is internationally recognized for her work in plant genome structure and stability. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In February 2011, she was elected home secretary of the NAS. She came to UC Riverside from the University of Georgia in 2010.

"Our genome has 2.5 billion letters that's about 1000 textbooks of 1000 pages each with no pictures," she said. "More than 50 percent of our genome is derived from transposable elements, which are DNA pieces that can move from one genomic location to another. In my talk I will explain how these transposable elements create genetic diversity."

The talk is being hosted by UC Riverside's College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) and the Science Circle, a group of university and community members committed to advancing science at UCR and in Inland Southern California.

The talk is the first of four lectures scheduled this year. The lecture series, titled "Science & Society: Major Issues of the 21st Century," aims to boost the public's awareness and understanding of science and of how scientists work.

"We are facing a number of great challenges in the coming decades, as a state, as a nation, and as a planet," said Thomas Baldwin, the dean of CNAS. "Science has the potential to meet and overcome these challenges, but it is important that citizens understand our options, and their benefits and risks, so that they can make informed decisions. For example, in recent years we have made enormous strides in understanding how genetics works."


Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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