Twenty years ago, the landscape of biology looked very different. As the century began, the “rough draft” of the human genome was nearing release, a year ahead of schedule. Biologists envisioned an era of unparalleled progress leading in a straight line from DNA sequence data to the precise causes of human health and behavior, and to the development of genetically modified crops that would end global hunger. As to populations in natural habitats, any evolutionary impacts of climate change were thought to be far in the future. Instead, 21st-century biologists are scrambling to understand the human-caused evolutionary changes taking place in our lifetimes. Genetically modified crops have led to unforeseen threats to the survival of their wild relatives, while constructed ecosystems provide alternative farming approaches. Molecular insights have uncovered the unexpected roles of epigenetics and the microbiome in development and disease. Tools are available to not just decode genes but to edit them, at once raising new possibilities and urgent ethical questions.
How can we approach this changed biological prospect? The course invites students to engage with these broadly resonant issues by framing them for general audiences rather than in specialized scientific terms. Drawing on common content from recent journal articles, guest research lectures/Q&A sessions, and a field trip to a local kelp-shellfish farm, students will unpack these contemporary themes by explaining the basic science in their own voices while considering them in larger contexts and exploring connections to their own knowledge and experience. The course will build strengths in communication and collaboration through individual writing and revising (in a variety of formats), active peer editing, and in-class workshopping of each piece, in a collective student-led format.Learn More