Darwin Days Special: Finding Other Ancient Minds Across the Human Evolutionary Tree; next week, Preserving Biodiversity for the Future

“Wednesday Nite @ The Lab” Public Science Talks

Wednesdays at 7pm CT

Room 1111 Genetics Biotech Center, 425 Henry Mall, Madison WI, 


Stream by zoom at go.wisc.edu/240r59


For 8 February 2023

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Peering inside a person’s skull is one thing, but getting inside a human mind is another, as Billy Crystal can attest, even for a man of infinite jest.

When my botany classmates studied fossils fifty years ago, we could see how the plant paleontologists could get the gist of how the plants stood and grew, and how their roots & branches & leaves were conceived, how the spores and then later (in geological time) the flowers formed and flourished.  It was pretty straightforward, and static.

Later on in the late 1980’s, before Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, I ran into a dinosaur paleontologist, and their research wasn’t just about form & function; it was also about locomotion and behavior.  Plants are sessile, but dinosaurs moved—they could walk, run, swim, and fly.  I was astonished at how the dinosaur folks could apply biomechanics to calculate their speed and gaits, their jumping and flying traits.  The dinosaur folks could go further, inferring from fossil rocks behaviors in areas such as nesting and rearing of young.  But how to plumb the motives of these motions?

This week I think I’ll be in for another wave of astonishment, to see how paleoanthropologists are braiding together lines of evidence from many fields in order to get a picture of the mens as well as of the manus of our hominin relatives.


On February 8 we’ll have a special “Darwin Days” presentation in association with the JF Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution as John Hawks of the Department of Anthropology speaks on “Finding Other Ancient Minds Across the Human Evolutionary Tree.”

Description:  Humans are the only living members of a diverse branch of ancient relatives. We have not been alone for long. Many extinct populations accompanied our species through most of our evolution. Recent work in many parts of the world has shown the remarkable behavioral complexity of some of these ancient relatives. This lecture will outline many of these discoveries, with a special focus on the exploration work by Professor Hawks and coworkers in South Africa. Many of these discoveries show that brain size is not the powerful factor in behavioral complexity that scientists once thought, posing new and exciting problems within the broader landscape of neuroscience and evolution. In honor of the Darwin Day celebration, the talk will recognize the ideas and contributions of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace toward understanding the behavioral and cognitive aspects of our origins.

Bio:  I’m an anthropologist, and I study the bones and genes of ancient humans. I’ve worked on almost every part of our evolutionary story, from the very origin of our lineage among the apes up to the last 10,000 years of our history.

My work has taken me to Africa, Asia, and Europe, where I have measured thousands of bones and investigated dozens of archaeological sites. My lab uses bioinformatics methods to work with whole genome sequences from thousands of living people (and a few ancient ones). We’re interested in uncovering the patterns of relationships that connect people, and the subtle changes by which we adapted to ancient environments. I’m an expert in population dynamics and the process of natural selection on both genes and morphological traits. I’ve used my work in genetics and skeletal biology to form rich collaborations with colleagues in a dozen countries.

I’m passionate about the potential of technology to transform science into a more open and public enterprise. I am building and pioneering new open science projects in human evolution. My most recent fieldwork as part of the Rising Star Expedition has shown the potential of open science approaches during paleoanthropological fieldwork. In 2013 we recovered more than 1200 hominin specimens from the Rising Star cave system in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, in an expedition led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. In May 2014, we convened a workshop of early career scientists to carry out the first description and analysis of the fossils. With more than 30 early career scientists from 15 countries, we had an exciting time opening this exceptional sample in the new vault at the University of the Witwatersrand. We are now preparing our research for publication.

Explore More:  https://johnhawks.net/


On February 15 Francisco Pelegrichair of the Laboratory of Genetics, including the Department of Genetics and the Department of Medical Genetics, will speak on “Preserving Biodiversity for the Future.”

Description:  Living species are being threatened by multiple environmental stressors, such as habitat deterioration and fragmentation, events caused by climate change, and invasives. Unfortunately, such stressors are predicted to intensify in the future, creating compounding effects that can lead to species extinction.

While environmental protection is paramount, new methods are starting to outline a new set of tools that may help preserve biodiversity, the key to population health. These approaches rely on the long-term preservation of biological samples, which can later be reprogrammed to regenerate cells and individuals to reintroduce the preserved genetic diversity.

We will talk about basic principles of this approach involving proactive, large-scale, and non-invasive biosampling and biopreservation, cellular reprogramming, and advanced reproductive technology. We will discuss challenges and some early successes.

Bio:  Francisco Pelegri obtained his PhD in cellular and developmental biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after studying genetics as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and joined the faculty of the UW–Madison Laboratory of Genetics in 1999.

The Pelegri laboratory uses model organisms such as the zebrafish Danio rerio to study processes in early vertebrate development such as pronuclear fusion, axis induction, cellularization, germ cell formation, and morphogenesis. His research has allowed new insights into vertebrate embryology, reproduction, and disease through techniques such as CRISPR, computational analysis, and biophysical modeling.

Pelegri has earned multiple awards throughout his career, including an NIH Director’s Award, as well as a Romnes Faculty Fellowship and Vilas Research Investigator Award from UW-Madison. In addition, a UW 2020 project on which he is the principal investigator recently received funding. The project, titled “Establishing proof-of-principle models for animal biodiversity biobanking,” has potential applications for both conservation genetics and regenerative medicine.

Explore More:




Hope to see you soon—in person, by zoom, or by YouTube livestream—at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Tom ZinnenBiotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H

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