Geneticist Susan Wessler's research focuses on understanding the "nuts and bolts" of evolution, yet her part of the country is a hotbed of anti-evolutionist activity. In one county, the school board ordered "warning stickers" to be placed on high school biology texts in 2002. The stickers stated: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact...this material should be approached with an open mind." In 2005, a Georgia court order, which is still on appeal, permitted the removal of such stickers.
"The fact that a school board would call evolution 'a theory, not a fact' is shocking proof that we're failing to communicate the revolution that is going on in our laboratories," said Wessler, a pioneer in the study of transposable elements, or "jumping genes," which are found scattered through plant and animal genomes. Researchers believe that these transposable elements—short segments of DNA previously viewed as "junk"—play a role in evolution.
As an HHMI professor, Wessler has designed a laboratory course in which students will analyze portions of a genome and learn that it is not just an instruction manual, but an historical record of how organisms evolve. "There is no better way to refute the idea of `intelligent design' than to show what a mess the genome is!" Wessler said. "If there is any `miracle,' it's that organisms function as well as they do despite the sloppiness."
Part of the "sloppiness" is the work of transposable elements, which can create mutations "and shake up an otherwise conservative genome," said Wessler. Her project as an HHMI professor will have undergraduates analyze these elements as part of a laboratory curriculum that integrates computational and bench experiments. Transposons, as they're also known, are ideal for study in an undergraduate course because they are fairly simple biological systems that provide a manageable amount of information, Wessler said. "We're learning more and more stuff," she remarked. "The leading biology text is over 1,000 pages. When you're an undergraduate, and you see this mountain you have to climb, it's daunting."
Mindful of the challenge of countering today's anti-evolutionary messages, Wessler feels strongly about spreading the excitement of genomic science as widely as possible. To that end, she plans to use a renovated laboratory to hold summer workshops for local high school teachers and their students.
As a final thought, Wessler pointed out the HHMI professors program is itself an experimental science: "This is what I hear from some of the professors who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the last four years getting this off the ground."