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An evening with Professor Laurence Hurst, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics

On Wednesday 13th March, Tormead was thrilled to welcome Laurence Hurst, a Professor in Evolutionary Genetics and the Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. Laurence is also the president of The Genetics Society and alongside this event being an incredible opportunity to hear from an expert in the field, it also marks the launch of KYTOS’s very own genetics society- a new club that we are all extremely excited about! Professor Hurst’s talk was attended by numerous girls, staff and parents. There was a wonderful atmosphere of amazement, as he gave us an insight into some intriguing evolutionary concepts. A potentially confusing topic was explained with such clarity and enthusiasm, making it a thoroughly enjoyable event for all, with plenty of laughs along the way!

Professor Hurst spoke about some of the fascinating ways the human evolution pathway varies compared to other mammals. He used one example of lactase production. The majority of mammals stop producing this enzyme after weaning, however some humans continue to produce lactase into adulthood. The reason for this unusual evolutionary pathway is uncertain, however he gave some interesting theories as to the ‘Why?’ question. These included farming lifestyle and access to calcium to aid the control of the destruction of vitamin D.

Another area covered was the nature of human reproduction and how it differs from that of other animals. For example, when humans engage in sexual intercourse it is done in private, contrasting with other apes. In addition to this, he compared the testes and sperm of chimpanzees and gorillas, explaining the evolutionary nature of these features. On the one hand, female chimpanzees tend to mate with more than one male, therefore it is important for the males to have larger testes and better quality sperm, to increase the chances of their sperm being the one to successfully fertilise the female’s egg. In contrast, female gorillas only mate with the one male, so these features are not as necessary, leading to their significantly smaller sized testes.

Furthermore, he spoke about pre-eclampsia and its causes. Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects pregnant women who are normally in the second half of their pregnancy. This condition affects the blood flow to the placenta which results in premature and smaller babies with a host of possible issues. If not treated immediately, it can result in death of the infant and mother. This is monitored by the mother’s blood pressure. If it becomes too high, this means she will be at risk of pre-eclampsia and must be monitored closely in hospital. Medication will be used to try and lower her blood pressure again. Mild forms of the condition only affect 6% of pregnancies and very severe cases only affect 1-2%. If the mother has a previous history of high blood pressure (hypertension), then she is more likely to experience pre-eclampsia and should seek medical attention earlier on.

Moreover, Professor Hurst discussed his challenges in regards to deciding what he wanted to study at university. He principally studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, where, along with influences from his early school life, he found his passion for genetics, evolution and genomics. We were all fascinated by the introduction to Professor Hurst’s speech, with a quote from Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense,’ which linked to his own mindset during his school life, as the questions he had were not often answered how he had hoped. With his presentation ending with the completed version of this quote, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense.. except in the light of evolution,’ expressing how he found his passion for his subject. We are all extremely grateful to Professor Hurst for giving up his time to come and talk to us. He has definitely left us intrigued to find out more about evolutionary genetics and the breadth of fascinating topics that it covers.

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