HomeHHMI's BioInteractiveThe Making of the Fittest: Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture

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Short Film
The Making of the Fittest: Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture

Summary

Follow human geneticist Spencer Wells, Director of the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society, as he tracks down the genetic changes associated with the ability to digest lactose as adults, tracing the origin of the trait to less than 10,000 years ago, a time when some human populations started domesticating animals.

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(Duration: 14 min 52 sec)

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Human babies drink milk; it's the food especially provided for them by their mothers. Various cultures have also added the milk of other mammals to their diet and adults think nothing of downing a glass of cows' milk. But worldwide, only a third of adults can actually digest lactose, the sugar in milk. In this short film we follow human geneticist Spencer Wells, Director of the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society, as he tracks down the genetic changes associated with the ability to digest lactose as adults, tracing the origin of the trait to less than 10,000 years ago, a time when some human populations started domesticating animals, including goats, sheep, and cows. Combining genetics, chemistry, and anthropology, this story provides a compelling example of the co-evolution of human genes and human culture.

"Did you ever wonder why some adults can drink milk and eat ice cream without any problems, while others get stomach aches and produce a lot of gas? Well, the Howard Highes Medical Institute has just released a short video that answers that question [...] Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture is an excellent video, albeit only 15 minutes long […] It would be a great asset to biology and anatomy classes studying genetic inheritance, evolution, digestion, and enzyme behavior."

—Jeffrey D. Sack, American Biology Teacher, January 2014

Awards

  • 2013 Medea Award; Highly Commended

Curriculum Connections:

AP (2012–13)

1.A.1.a,b,c,d,e; 1.A.2.a,b,c; 1.C.3.a,b; 3.A.1.a,c,d; 3.B.1.a,b,c,d; 3.C.1.a,b,d; 3.C.2.a; 4.A.1.a,b; 4.B.1.a,b,c; 4.C.2.a,b 

Supporting Materials (7)

Film Guides
The following classroom-ready resources complement Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture, which tells the story of the evolution of the ability to digest lactose, a genetic trait that arose in humans within the last 10,000 years in some pastoralist cultures.
Classroom Resource
Students explore the genetic changes associated with lactose tolerance/intolerance and how the trait is inherited in families.
Classroom Resource
Students evaluate and discuss several statements about lactose intolerance and evolution before and after watching the film.
Classroom Resource
Students explore the effects of different diets on the evolution of an enzyme that breaks down starch.
Classroom Resource
Students simulate a lactose tolerance test.
Classroom Resource
Students interpret the results of two different tests for lactase persistence.
Classroom Resource
A text transcript of the short film "Got Lactase? The Co-evolution of Genes and Culture" from the Making of the Fittest short film series.

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This series of five short films features unforgettable examples of the evolutionary process in action.

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