November 25, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 5

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    Conference on Human Genetics brings DNA experts together for discussion

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    The first Marjorie I. and Bernard A. Mitchell Conference on Human Genetics will bring three world-renowned scholars–James Watson (A.B. ’47), C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., and Svante Pääbo–to campus Friday, Dec. 4, to discuss what DNA can tell us about the past, present and future.

    The University of Chicago Medal will be presented to conference speaker Watson immediately following the conference in honor of his enormous contributions to the understanding of genetics.

    After the award ceremony, Edward O. Wilson will talk about “The Diversity of Life” in the third annual Jean Mitchell Watson Lecture, named in honor of Watson’s mother. Wilson is the creator of the field of sociobiology, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and author of the recent best-seller Consilience, which attempts to draw divergent sciences together.

    The conference speakers are three of the leading researchers in the field of genetics. Watson, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for discovery of the structure of DNA. Their description of the now famous “double helix” helped explain how DNA carries genetic messages and how it copies itself, allowing cells to divide and create new organisms. Watson and his colleagues’ 1953 discovery is seen as perhaps the most important scientific discovery of the century, inspiring countless follow-up studies that have dominated the life sciences throughout the second half of this century.

    Caskey, president of the Merck Genome Research Institute and an adjunct professor at Baylor University, has been a pioneer in the search for disease-causing gene abnormalities and the development of new techniques of gene therapy. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, Caskey is the recipient of numerous research and teaching awards. He has served as president of the American Society of Human Genetics and as a member of the advisory committees on mapping the human genome for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy.

    Pääbo, a project leader for the German version of the Human Genome Project, professor at the University of Munich and founding director of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, uses molecular-level analysis of DNA to study human evolution. He pioneered current techniques of recovering and analyzing ancient DNA from archeological and paleontological remains. His team has recently completed the first successful isolation of DNA from the dung of an extinct animal, a tool for understanding an ancient animal’s environment.

    The conference, award ceremony and lecture will all be held in the Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St. The Marjorie I. and Bernard A. Mitchell Conference will take place from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., and the Watson Lecture will follow at 2 p.m. Registration is required; for more information, see the Department of Human Genetics Web site, conferences and symposia section, at http://www.genes.uchicago.edu.