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Promise, problems, future of genetic research topic of March 8-9 conference

Craig Chamberlain , News Editor
(217) 333-2894;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scholars from a wide range of disciplines and with diverse points-of-view will gather for a conference at the University of Illinois on March 8-9 to discuss the promise, problems and future direction of genetic research.

"The New Biology: Issues and Opportunities" will bring together scholars from the UI and elsewhere, and from fields including animal sciences, anthropology, biology, history, law and medical ethics.

The conference, free and open to the public, will be held at the UI’s Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., Urbana. Among topics that will be discussed will be stem cells, cloning, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetics of aging and eugenics.

The rising tide of discoveries in genetic research, and its potential ramifications, were part of the impetus for organizing the conference, say co-coordinators Richard Burkhardt, a professor of history, and Harris Lewin, a professor of animal sciences.

"The biology that's emerging from the Human Genome Project is something that promises to be of fundamental consequence for human existence in the 21st century, for how we conceive of ourselves and what we can do to ourselves, for good or ill," said Burkhardt, who teaches courses on the history of science and of biology.

"It’s very timely now to explore the broader social, ethical and legal issues that are going to inevitably arise as a result of the new technological advances," Lewin said.

The conference also was initiated as the result of developments on the UI campus, where plans are under way for a Post-Genomic Institute and additional faculty members are being hired in genetics-related fields, Lewin said. He is one of a group of faculty members who have encouraged those developments and who are "committed to seeing the University of Illinois rise to the top, elite group in biology and biotechnology."

As part of that initiative, Burkhardt and Lewin said they hoped campus researchers in other fields would explore broader and related concerns, such as those that will be discussed at the conference. It's one reason the conference is open to the larger university community, as well as the general public.

Lewin especially encouraged students and faculty members outside the hard sciences to attend, "because these issues will touch everybody at some time in the future." Burkhardt anticipated the discussion would be "as broad as what genetics has to say to society and what society has to say to genetics.

The principal sponsor of the conference is the UI’s Center for Advanced Study, which organized the conference as part of its yearlong New Biology Initiative, which has featured a series of speakers and public forums on the topic.

The conference sessions – except for the keynote address – will run from 9 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. All sessions will be held on the third floor of the Levis Faculty Center.

The conference schedule:

MARCH 8 (Friday)

Tracing the Roots of the New Biology (morning)

orange dot "Charles Darwin and the New Biology of the 19th Century," Richard Burkhardt, UI department of history

orange dot "From Gene Action to Genetic Programs: Narratives of Development and the Molecular Revolution," Evelyn Fox Keller, Program in Science, Technology and Society, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology

Issues in Agriculture and the Environment (morning and afternoon)

orange dot "Animal Cloning and Its Applications in Agriculture and Medicine," Neal First, department of animal science, University of Wisconsin, Madison

orange dot "Biology as Enabling Science of the Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries," Gregory Stephanopoulos, department of chemical engineering, MIT

orange dot Abigail Salyers, department of microbiology, UI

orange dot "The Ethics of Genetically Engineered Animals," Robert Streiffer, Program in Medical Ethics, UW, Madison

Keynote Address, 8 p.m.

orange dot "From Stem Cells to Jail Cells – The Politics of Embryo Research," Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison

MARCH 9 (Saturday)

The Human Condition: Life Span (morning)

orange dot "The Genetics of Aging and the Plasticity Within," Caleb Finch, Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern

orange dot "Genomic Variation in Human Disease," Aravinda Chakravarti, McKusick-Nathans Institute for Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University

orange dot "Unexpected Plasticity of Adult Marrow-Derive Stem Cells," Catherine Verfaillie, University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute

The Human Condition: The Nature of Human Nature (afternoon)

orange dot "Genetic Citizenship: Bench Scientists, Physicians and Patient Group Activism in The Shadow of the Genome," Rayna Rapp, department of anthropology, New York University

orange dot "Synapse-Specific Gene Expression: Role in Synaptic Plasticity and Memory Storage?" Oswald Steward, department of anatomy and neurobiology, University of California, Irvine

orange dot "How Will the Progress in Genetics Change Our Lives?" Rex Chisholm, Center for Genetic Medicine, Northwestern University

orange dot "Genetic Enthusiasms , Biological Reality, and the Specter of Eugenics: What Can We Learn From History?" Garland Allen, Evolutionary and Population Biology Program, Washington University.