Cosponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)

An Evolution Symposium and Teaching Workshop at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Professional Development Conference, Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, Minneapolis, MN


AIBS and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) cosponsored the seventh annual evolution symposium and teaching workshop at the 2010 National Association of Biology Teachers Professional Development Conference. The Symposium featured four speakers whose research in molecular evolution is revolutionizing our understanding of familiar and compelling examples of evolution. All speakers’ presentations were recorded and now available for free viewing. The following day, a workshop was held for educators interested in learning new ways to integrate molecular evolution into their courses.


1:00 PM
Sam Donovan, University of Pittsburgh and member of the AIBS Education Committee

1:15 - 2:00 PM
Edmund “Butch” D. Brodie III, Professor of Biology and Director of Mountain Lake Biological Station, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

Time to Change the Channel: Predator-Prey Arms Races and the Evolution of Toxin Resistance in Snakes

To watch Dr. Brodie’s presentation on the toxin arms race between newts and garter snakes, go to NESCent’s webpage and scroll down to information about his presentation.

Arms races between predators and dangerous prey can lead to rapid and elaborate counter-adaptation. Newts of the genus Taricha possess the sodium channel blocker tetrodotoxin (TTX), which is lethal to most predators. Garter snakes have repeatedly evolved resistance to TTX through their ecological interaction with toxic newts. Sodium channel genes are highly conserved across vertebrates, yet garter snakes have evolved resistance through a few key mutations in these proteins in a very short evolutionary time. Snake species around the world have evolved TTX resistance through the same set of mutations, painting a clear picture of constraint driven convergent evolution. Understanding the molecular mechanism of adaptation helps explain the dynamics of predator-prey arms races in this system, wherein predators sometimes “win” the race, but prey never do.

2:00 - 2:45 PM
Allen G. Rodrigo, Professor of Biology, Duke University and Director, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Durham, NC

Rapidly Evolving Viruses: Studying Molecular Evolution in Real Time

To watch Dr. Rodrigo’s presentation on the practical and research value of studies in viral evolution, go to NESCent’s webpage and scroll down to information about his presentation.

Viruses like HIV, Human Influenza Virus, and Hepatitis B and C Viruses, acquire mutations in their genetic material very rapidly. This means that over the course of an epidemic, or an infection lasting one or more years, we are able to see changes in these viruses and study the evolutionary processes that act on these populations. Rapidly evolving viruses are subject to genetic drift, selection, recombination and the dynamics of population growth and subdivision. In this talk, Dr. Rodrigo described how understanding virus evolution allows us to understand disease and therapy. Dr. Rodrigo also talked about how evolutionary principles have been used in vaccine design.

3:00 - 3:45 PM
Hopi E. Hoekstra, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Curator of Mammals, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

From Mice to Molecules: the Genetics of Color Adaptation

To watch Dr. Hoekstra’s presentation on research into the underlying molecular mechanisms of coat color in beach mice, go to NESCent’s webpage and scroll down to information about her presentation.

Camouflaging color is a classic example of adaptation—organisms that match their local environment often have a lower probability of predation relative to conspicuous individuals. Until recently, however, the underlying genetic changes responsible for this adaptation have been unknown. Dr. Hoekstra’s research team has been studying cryptic coloration in natural populations of oldfield mice (Peromyscus polionotus), which show extreme color variation throughout their range in the southeastern U.S., first noted by naturalists in the early 1900s. While mice in the mainland have typical dark brown coats, mice that have recently colonized Florida’s coastal dunes and barrier islands have evolved light color and a unique color pattern to blend into the brilliant white-sand beaches. In this talk, Dr. Hoekstra presented data — from both the lab and the field - in which her team (1) experimentally demonstrates that coloration matters for survival in the wild, and (2) identifies the genes and developmental process responsible for color variation in these mice. Together, these results allow us to retrace the evolutionary path of adaptive change in the wild, teaching us new lessons about the evolution of diversity along the way.

3:45 - 4:30 PM
Sean B. Carroll, Professor of Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Vice President for Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institutes

How Bugs Get Their Spots: Genetic Switches and the Evolution of Form

To watch Dr. Carroll’s presentation on his work in Drosophila wing coloration, go to NESCent’s webpage and scroll down to information about his presentation.

Understanding the genetic mechanisms underlying the evolution of animal form has long been a quest of evolutionary biology. A large body of comparative and experimental data has pointed to the central importance of non-coding regulatory DNA sequences (“genetic switches”) in the evolution of development and form. Dr. Carroll discussed a few case studies of insect color patterns that illuminate the general role of genetic switches in the evolution of form.

4:30 PM
Brian Wiegmann - Associate Director of Education and Outreach, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Durham, NC
Summary and Wrap-up


The “Using a “Genotype to Phenotype” Approach to Improve Students’ Understanding of Evolution” teaching workshop was held on Saturday. Molecular evolution can be challenging for students, but a better understanding of the “genotype to phenotype” relationship can help address a number of common misconceptions about evolutionary concepts.

Dr. Jim Smith (Michigan State University) led an activity demonstrating the underlying molecular mechanisms resulting in round or wrinkled peas. Dr. Brian White (University of Massachusetts) presented Aipotu, a free computer simulation that demonstrates the relationship between genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry and evolution.

To learn about these resources, go to: Molecular Insights: Labs and Tools, part of the collection of educational resources compiled by NESCent for this event.

The presentations and teaching resources from all previous symposia and workshops are available on the NESCent website. Please visit:

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