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College of Science & Mathematics

Dean's Distinguished Speaker Series:

David Botstein

Dr. David Botstein, Anthony B. Evnin Professor of Genomics at Princeton University

When the microphone stopped working for David Botstein, Anthony B. Evnin professor of genomics at Princeton University, he used the technological difficulty to introduce a point he would build his presentation around.

“That’s the thing with technology; it either works, or you have to do it by hand,” Botstein chuckled.

Alluding to the misconceptions scientists and medical researchers have about the study of cancer, Botstein emphasized the importance of experimentation to discover the mysteries of evolution surrounding the disease.

“We think we know enough to make advances in the treatment of [cancer], when we really don’t,” Botstein said. “Basic scientists have not been shy to taking the limited amount of knowledge on the subject and applying it to the pharmaceuticals of it.”

At the opening Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Spring Series on Friday, March 28, Dr. Botstein delivered a presentation to a student filled Pfleeger Hall, entitled: Yeast, Evolution and Cancer.

Botstein opened his speech with facts that scientists most definitely know about the disease: in the brief 300 years of research regarding cancer, and the known 15 percent of the recently mapped human genome, “we” don’t really know much at all.

Having 34 years experience within the field of genomics, Botstein made the case that cancer is an evolutionary process in which a cell replicates when it’s not supposed to — an instance of evolution that scientists have adopted as fact, not theory.

Botstein’s studies examine yeast cells because of their Eukaryotic structure, allowing researchers to compare their mutations to human cell mutations. The added effect that yeast cells reproduce at an extremely fast rate also allows researchers to observe hundreds of generations of cells in a matter of weeks, documenting any mutations and how they came to be.

The findings of his studies show that cells mutate all the time; eukaryotic cells have inherent mutation correction processes that repair the mutated DNA, sometimes missing certain sequences. The mutated sequences can be harmful, or they can be benign. In harmful cases, a cell reproduces too fast and too often — cancer. Because of the increased reproduction of the cell, mutations occur that the correction processes cannot correct, creating hitchhiker genes; the benign traits of a cell.
Botstein also alluded that over time, cells will eventually all mutate, a principle of evolution. Those who carry the genes for a specific cancer, or at more risk because the code is already in the DNA, meaning that it would take less time for it to evolve, than someone who doesn’t have carry the gene.

“But we wouldn’t know these things about DNA if we stopped experimenting,” said Botstein. “We have to step beyond the computers and continue to hypothesize in order to make more progress in treating cancer.”

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