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Evolutionary Struggle With Cancer


Evolutionary Struggle With Cancer is Focus of Public Lecture at UC Riverside

Biologist Leonard Nunney to give first of three lectures this fall on application of evolutionary ideas

(October 8, 2009)

Leonard Nunney is a professor in the Department of Biology at UC Riverside.Enlarge

Leonard Nunney is a professor in the Department of Biology at UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Our evolutionary struggle with this disease is the focus of a free, public lecture at UC Riverside.

Population geneticist Leonard Nunney will give the hour-long lecture, titled “The Battle Within: Our Evolutionary Struggle With Cancer,” at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 15, in the University Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m. Seating is open.

“Cancer is unlike other diseases,” said Nunney, a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, whose research focuses on the experimental and theoretical basis of evolution, including the evolution of protection against cancer. “The damaging effects of cancer are not caused by the typical disease-causing organisms that attack our bodies. Instead they are caused by renegade cells from our own body. But these cells are part of us. How then can cancer happen?

“The problem is that our bodies are large complex societies of many billions of cells, and it only takes the programming of a single cell to go wrong to initiate cancer. We usually survive these daunting odds because we have evolved mechanisms to suppress such errors. To answer why natural selection has not gotten rid of cancer, we first need to understand both the power and the limitations of evolution by natural selection.”

Nunney’s talk is being hosted by the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the Science Circle, a group of university and community members committed to advancing science at UCR and in Inland Southern California.

Nunney obtained his Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Nottingham, the United Kingdom. He joined UCR’s Department of Biology in 1980 after teaching at the University of Edinburgh and completing a postdoctoral appointment at Princeton University. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He has published many research papers in international peer-reviewed scientific journals on evolution and its application to real life problems. These applications include the conservation of endangered species, the control of agricultural pests and pathogens, and understanding the origins of cancer.

Currently, Nunney is working on a genomic study of Xylella fastidiosa, a plant pathogen causing Pierce’s disease of grape, the disease that severely threatened winegrowing in Temecula, Calif. He also is involved in several studies in conservation genetics, including a study of the extent to which major roads split healthy populations into small vulnerable units that lack the genetic variability to adapt to new challenges such as disease and climate change.

Nunney’s lecture is the first of three lectures in the series “The Science of Evolution II: Applying Evolutionary Ideas.” The remaining two lectures, “Born to Run: Evolution of Hyperactivity in Mice” and “The Silent Majority: How Symbiotic Bacteria Evolve to Help and Hurt,” are scheduled for Oct. 29 and Nov. 12, respectively.

The lecture series, which aims to boost the public’s awareness and understanding of how science works and break down some of the misunderstandings about what scientists do, follows an earlier series of lectures on evolution held this year at UCR.

For more information about the lecture series, please visit www.cnas.ucr.edu/sciencelectures/, call 951-827-6555 or email carol.lerner@ucr.edu.

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The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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