March 4, 2008

UC San Diego and Salk Institute Establish Center to Study the Origin of Humans

Salk News

UC San Diego and Salk Institute Establish Center to Study the Origin of Humans

La Jolla, CA – Perhaps the oldest question in the world is “where do I come from?”

To help answer this question from a scientific perspective, a multidisciplinary group of researchers at the University of California, San Diego, along with colleagues at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, have established a center to formally explore the origins of humanity and the many facets of what makes us human.

The Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny, or CARTA, is based on an effort that has already been underway for more than 10 years, coordinated by the UC San Diego Project for Explaining the Origin of Humans (which is the definition of “anthropogeny”). That group, composed of experts from throughout the world, has organized multi-disciplinary meetings and symposia – efforts that will now be converted into a larger and more public research program that will also facilitate graduate and undergraduate education.

According to the center”s co-director, Ajit Varki, M.D., professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego, definitive answers are most likely to come from discussions and studies that bring together a wide variety of approaches in the biological, biomedical and social sciences, as well as aspects of the arts and humanities, with important technological input from the physical, chemical and computing sciences.

“CARTA is “transdisciplinary,” meaning it transcends or goes beyond traditional disciplines, and breaks down the walls between them. In doing so, we are more likely to succeed, by eliminating the concept of individual disciplines, and instead looking at knowledge as a broad-based continuum,” said Varki, whose own studies of glycans, or sugar molecules, and their role in cancer and other diseases have pinpointed some of the genetic differences between humans and their closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees.

The goals of CARTA are essentially scholarly and range from understanding more about human and primate genetics and evolution to advancing relevant knowledge in areas such as language, communication and cognition, human society and culture.

“For ten years, we have been meeting regularly in La Jolla discussing topics related to the origins of humans,” said Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., professor in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute, adjunct professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego and co-director of CARTA, who is a pioneer in the study of brain stem cells. “So the initiation of this program is a progression and a demonstration of the growing interest in the relevancy of this area of study. We are now ready to train the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists to dig deeper into the question of human origins.”

“The center will allow us to move well beyond the bounds of any given field of study,” said Margaret Schoeninger, professor of anthropology at UC San Diego, co-director of CARTA and expert on the impact of nutrition and environment on human evolution. “Looking at the biological and cognitive links between humans and other primates or other animals – and doing so, not only with the breadth afforded by different disciplines, but also with the depth offered by an evolutionary perspective – will give us a richer picture both of the past and of today.”

Proposed activities of the new center include developing an online museum of comparative anthropogeny; organizing access to resources for great ape research; stewardship of the library, electronic database, serum and skeletal collections donated by the Primate Foundation of Arizona; facilitating a graduate elective course on human origins at UC San Diego as well as the teaching of evolutionary principles at the UCSD School of Medicine; and, development of a peer-reviewed journal, among others.

CARTA leadership also intends to facilitate formation of a graduate faculty that will set up a specialization track in anthropogeny within the next few years

“We need to equip the next generation of scholars to formulate and address questions concerning the origins of humanity that we are, at present, only beginning to envision,” said Varki. “We want to be able to say that these are the facts about human origins…from every branch of human scientific knowledge.”

CARTA associate director is Pascal Gagneux, Ph.D., assistant professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego and a specialist in human and primate molecular evolution. Support for IT infrastructure and informatics is being provided by the San Diego Supercomputer Center and Calit2, under the guidance of Chaitan Baru, Ph.D. The G. Harold & Leila Y. Mathers Foundation, which has supported the symposia over the past ten years, has committed $3 million to launch the new center.

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