The Evolution of a Course

By Mika Ono

What's new at the interface between chemistry and biology? Quite a lot, and this is reflected by a new course offered by The Scripps Research Institute's (TSRI) Kellogg School of Science and Technology. For the first time this spring, graduate students and postdocs have had the opportunity to attend a course entitled Chemical and Biological Principles of Evolution.

"The new class, a cross-divisional feature of the curriculum, is really driven by the exciting science at TSRI," says Associate Professor M.G. Finn, who came up with the idea for the course. "The field is being born here more than anywhere else in the world. I figured if we didn't offer it, we'd kick ourselves."

The course focuses on the molecular mechanisms of biological evolution and how these mechanisms are being used by scientists. Participants study the concepts and techniques in the budding field that addresses the creation of chemical and biological function in the laboratory. Assigned reading consists primarily of articles published within scientific journals, such as Cell, Nature Structural Biology, and Trends in Biological Science, within the last three years.

Floyd Romesberg, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Valerie de Crécy-Lagard, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, helped Finn make the course a reality.

"The class integrates the chemical and biological perspective," notes Romesberg. "The questions addressed in the class have been orphaned in the middle of the two fields. The chemists aren't taught genetics and the geneticists aren't taught chemistry. In contrast, the class approaches genetics from a mechanistic perspective based on DNA replication/mutation and covers topics in the middle of chemistry and biology."

De Crécy-Lagard adds, "There was a need for a unifying course on the topic. I've helped a lot of students individually in the field over the last few years."

Some two dozen people—graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from over a dozen different TSRI labs in both biology and chemistry—are attending the course.

Eleven speakers from institutions including TSRI, Caltech, San Diego State University, Maxygen, Inc., and Baylor College of Medicine are addressing topics including: "Adaptive Mutation: Recombination in Cancer Biology," "Ligand Discovery with Natural and Unnatural mRNA Display Libraries," "In Vitro Evolution," "Phage and Ribosome Display," and "Evolution in Chemical Systems: Peptide Self-Replication."

"Our approach was to have the experts teach the subject matter," says Romesberg. "We aren't watering the science down."

While inviting the speakers and pulling together a syllabus took some leg work, Finn notes that there were few other barriers to getting the course off the ground. "That's the great part about being at TSRI," he says. "There are no administrative hurdles."

So far the class's turnout has been good—some lectures have even drawn a crowd—and feedback has been positive.

"This has been a very, very good class," comments Tracey Jackson, a first-year graduate student in the Joyce lab. "They should teach it again next year!"


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TSRI investigators M.G. Finn (left), Valerie de Crécy-Lagard (right), and Floyd Romesberg (not pictured) are teaching a new cross-divisional class, the Chemical and Biological Principles of Evolution. Photo by Kevin Fung.