ISU celebrates Darwin's birthday with talk on mice genetic research

February 14 2008

TERRE HAUTE • In a day that included birthday cake and a bobble head doll, Indiana State University celebrated Charles Darwin’s birthday by listening to a researcher discuss the genetic adaptation in mice.

“I would argue that Darwin, more than any scientist, changed our worldview,” Hopi Hoekstra, a biology professor and curator of mammalogy at Harvard University, said during the Darwin Day celebration. “He changed the way we thought of ourselves.”

This year celebrates the 199th year since Darwin’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809. While each Feb. 12 scientists celebrate the discoveries and life of Darwin -- the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor • they also acknowledge how science has contributed to humanity.

Indiana State joined the celebration three years ago.

“We started this to increase awareness of scientific advancement,” said Rusty Gonser, ISU assistant professor of life science.

To that end, ISU’s department of life sciences, along with the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College department of science and mathematics, asked Hoekstra to speak. Representatives of both schools presented Hoekstra with a certificate and a Darwin bobble head doll.

“It’s an opportunity for them to hear from some of the cutting-edge scientists in the U.S., if not the world,” Gonser said of the students. “That scientific community and culture is being brought to ISU and the students get to walk away with their knowledge.”

For Krista Lenz, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major from Shelbyville, Ill., the talk did just that.

“It’s amazing that something Darwin did 150 years ago is still relevant today and we still don’t know everything about it,” she said.

Hoekstra said scientists are still trying to fill in the framework that Darwin established 149 years ago with his book “The Origin of Species.”

“He built this beautiful edifice,” she said. “We’re just laboring putting bricks into it.”

Hoekstra’s labor centers upon the evolutionary genetics within the natural populations of mammals, specifically deer mice in the wild. She spoke to the crowd of more than 100 about tracing the color differences in a subspecies of the deer mouse through genes.

Hoekstra has focused upon tracing the genetic color code for beach mice with their white color and brown dorsal stripe. Instead of dark soil and heavy vegetation, beach mice must blend into sand and sparse vegetation.

“It’s a pretty harsh existence for beach mice,” she said. “They look different than their mainland counterparts. It’s quite possible that the difference has arisen in only the past few thousand years.”

At Harvard, lab work involved cross-breeding mice so researchers could find genetic mutations between the two. They also found that amino acid was linked to the genetic mutation in the wild • at least for the beach mice on the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida. For the beach mice on the Atlantic side of Florida, no such amino acid link existed and their genetic codes were different even though their coloring mirrored the gulf mice.

“We found there are different genetic solutions to a common ecological problem,” Hoekstra said.

Now Hoekstra and her team of researchers are searching for a burrowing gene within mice.

“These are mice that have never seen dirt. Their parents have never seen dirt,” she said. “You put them in dirt and some will burrow.”

Not only burrow, she said, but burrow in the same way as their wild cousins.

“We’re really just starting,” she said. “There are lots of questions we can ask from behavior to genetics to neuroscience.”

-30-

Contact: Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University, assistant professor of life sciences, at 812- 237-2395 or rgonser@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jsicking@isugw.indstate.edu

Photo: http://ISUphoto.smugmug.com/photos/254129613_RTzQf-D.jpg

Cutline: Hopi Hoekstra, biology professor from Harvard University, laughs as she receives a Charles Darwin bobblehead doll from Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University assistant professor of life science. Hoekstra was the guest speaker of ISU’s Darwin Day Celebration.

Photo: http://ISUphoto.smugmug.com/photos/254129765_75vb4-D.jpg

Cutline: Hopi Hoekstra, biology professor from Harvard University, speaks to an audience of more than 100 at Indiana State University as part of the Darwin Day Celebration.

Bookmark and Share

Story Highlights

In a day that included birthday cake and a bobble head doll, Indiana State University celebrated Charles Darwin's birthday by listening to a researcher discuss the genetic adaptation in mice.

Bookmark and Share