Stanford professor to discuss human genetics

Amanda Sams

What differentiates human beings from all other animals in the kingdom?

Carlos D. Bustamante, a professor in genetics from Stanford University, is traveling from Palo Alto, Calif. to the University to address this question.

His lecture, titled “Evolutionary Theory in the Age of Genomics,” is the last in the five-part lecture series, Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution, or ALLELE, and will take place tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Biology Auditorium.

Leslie Rissler, series coordinator for ALLELE, said she invited Bustamante to speak.

“He is a preeminent evolutionary biologist using bioinformatics tools to answer fundamental questions about natural selection and evolution,” Rissler said. “He does this by using dogs, humans, and other complete genomes.”

Bustamante studied at Harvard University and worked as professor of biological statistics and computational biology at Cornell University, with research focus in the areas of population genetic theory, human population genetics, evolutionary genomics of domestication and association mapping in natural populations.

Bustamante recently moved to Stanford University and plans to continue working on understanding the genetics of different human populations in addition to genetic studies focused on the Americas and migrations that happened 15,000 years ago.

While this lecture may appear daunting to those unfamiliar with the fields of genetics or genomics, Bustamante said he would break the material down in a way that most anyone can understand.

“While genetics may seem like a bit of a dry field, it turns out that in the last 10 years, since the completion of the Human Genome project, it has undergone a dramatic resurgence and is of tremendous medical and important social consequence,” Bustamante said. “My lecture will focus on the application of genomics to modern medicine and trying to understand the nature of complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, etc.”

In addition, Bustamante said he will also speak about the effects of genetics on plants and animals as well, but will primarily focus on the human factor.

When asked what he wants the average college student to retain from the multitude of information that he shares, Bustamante said genetics is universal.

“Genetics does not differentiate between black, white, and Asian. It provides a unified view of humanity because it breaks down any simple notion of race,” Bustamante said.

“Also, genetics has an equal importance to economics, sociology, and medicine in our world. It transforms the life you live, impacts the foods you eat, medicines you take and susceptibility to diseases that you may get. It should not be left to geneticists.”

Bustamante said what genetics shows is a humbling truth — how we are all similar to one another on a scientific level.

“We sometimes think that humans are more unique and special than other animals, but 98.5 percent of our genes are identical to those of chimpanzees,” Bustamante said.

Tonight’s lecture is free and open to the public.