Genetic Revolutions

Executive Summary
In honor of Columbia University's 250th anniversary, a group of world-renowned scholars gathered at the university on October 16 and 17, 2003, to discuss the history, methods, and impacts of the genetic revolution in a symposium entitled "Genes and Genomes: Impact on Medicine and Society." Guided by distinguished Columbia faculty, including Isadore S. Edelman, Andrew R. Marks, Jonathan R. Cole, David Hirsh, and President Lee C. Bollinger, the symposium addressed the discoveries and applications of genetics and genomics from the perspectives of evolution, medicine, and society.

The first of three half-day sessions, "Genes, Genomes, and Evolution," began with an introduction to Columbia's distinguished history in genetic research by Dean of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons Gerald D. Fischbach. The first of Columbia's guests, Sydney Brenner, argued that our wealth of genomic information should now be studied in its original biological context: the cell. He described his view of the cell as a city and a genome sequence as a phone book—only a fragmentary description of the complex whole.

Svante Pääbo described the approaches of comparative genomics to try to identify human-specific traits. In particular, Pääbo focused on his group's work identifying and characterizing the evolution of genes that may be responsible for our specialized gift of language. Michael Levine explored achievements in identifying and characterizing noncoding regulatory and expression-enhancing regions of genomes, in particular those that play vital roles in fly-embryo development. Eric Lander described the kinds of information to be stored in a genome, and explained how sequences are being screened for meaningful information and variation within populations.

The second session of the symposium, "Genes, Genomes and Medicine," began with Michael Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein describing their characterization of the human LDL receptor and how mutations in LDL-receptor gene can cause coronary artery disease. Their work has since extended to focus on how diet, an environmental modulator, can regulate the production of the LDL receptor and cause the same disease. Cornelia Bargmann described the strides that have been made in connecting genes to behavior, focusing in particular on how circadian-rhythm genes relate to sleep disorders, on species-specific social behaviors, and on the relationship between environment and genes in human depression. Roy Anderson concluded the day's discussion with an exploration of how genetic epidemiology and computer simulations are used to understand the evolution of rapidly changing and emerging pathogens, such as influenza A and the SARS coronavirus.

The final session of the symposium, "Genes, Genomes, and Society," began with a description by Anne McLaren of the complex bioethical questions raised by advances in gene testing, gene therapy, stem-cell research, and cloning and international attempts to regulate their use. Colin Renfrew next described the evolution of Homo sapiens and argued that molecular genetics alone will not be sufficient to explain the emergence and the variation of human behaviors.

The topics covered in the symposium were put into global perspective by two of Columbia's own faculty members. Jeffrey Sachs described the relationships between geography and poverty and scientific advance and affluence; advances in agrobiotechnology exemplify the means for mobilizing science and technology to alleviate disease and poverty around the world. Philip Kitcher highlighted the potential social implications of genetic advances, focusing on the examples of genetic testing and genetic determinism of behavior. He argued that these advances must be pursued in methodologically sophisticated and ethically reasonable ways in order to attain social justice.
Program Schedule
View the timetable for the conference.

Video Archive
View video highlights of the symposium, including slides and transcripts from conference participants.

Related Resources
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Conference Transcript
View the full text of the conference proceedings (PDF).
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