Media Advisory

Nov. 15 symposium explores human history in whole genomes

Contact: Robert Sanders, Media Relations
(510) 643-6998

06 November 2008

ATTENTION: Science editors, writers, producers


A one-day University of California, Berkeley, symposium, "Humanity's Genes and the Human Condition," to explore what human genes - and the genes of extinct human ancestors - can tell us about our history, the origin of language, susceptibility to disease and the origins of mental illness. It is free and open to the public.


Saturday, Nov. 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Berdahl Auditorium, 105 Stanley Hall, UC Berkeley. For more information, see the campus map.


A keynote address will be given by Princeton University geneticist David Botstein and closing remarks by Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner of the Salk Institute and UC Berkeley. These speakers will bracket talks by:

  • Svante Paabo, director of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, on what Neandertal genes tell us about human evolution and the development of language
  • Jean-Laurent Casanova of Rockefeller University, on genetic predisposition to childhood infectious disease
  • Karin Stromswold of Rutgers University, on genetic mutations that affect primarily language only
    David Porteous of the University of Edinburgh, on the multiple genetic pathways leading to mental illness
  • Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin Law School, on ethical issues surrounding lifestyle choices that lead to heritable but non-genetic (epigenetic) disease


Now that the cost of sequencing human genomes - and the genomes of our living and extinct ancestors - has dropped so low that it will soon become commonplace, scientists can tackle the challenge thrown down by Sydney Brenner in his 2002 speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: to study in detail "natural human genetic variation and its correlation with ... health and disease."

Calling this "the major challenge in human biology and medicine in the next decade," Brenner urged development of the technology that now has reduced the price of sequencing a single human genome to as low as $5,000.

"Human genome information is now telling us about who we are, where we came from and where we're going," said Michael Botchan, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who organized the symposium with campus colleague Steve Martin, also a molecular and cell biology professor. "What was once the purview of molecular biology now intersects with a broad range of disciplines, from anthropology and psychology to linguistics and law."

The symposium, sponsored by Genentech, is meant to draw other disciplines, in particular the humanities, into a discussion of how these technological developments will affect our understanding of the "human condition," Martin said.