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Darwin Anniversary prompts school students to compare their DNA with chimpanzees’

In November 1859 Charles Darwin laid the foundations of modern evolutionary biology by publishing his landmark work ‘On the Origin of Species’. 150 years later, post-16 biology students are conducting their own experiments to investigate human evolution by extracting their own DNA and using the scientific techniques to see how it compares with that of chimpanzees. Nowgen, centre for genetics in healthcare, is giving school students an opportunity to take part in specialist laboratory workshops with the help of a team of scientists from the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Manchester. Nowgen is part of the Manchester Biomedical Research Centre. Over 1,500 students will take part in a total of 75 workshops at the Nowgen Centre between now and July 2010. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, the fascinating workshops are part of the ‘Survival Rivals’ project, celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’. The one-day workshops are called ‘A Question of Taste: Using PCR to investigate human evolution’ and explore the variation in our ability to taste a particular bitter flavour, and whether this gives us any evolutionary advantage. Students work with their own DNA, using cutting-edge techniques to find out how their own genes impact upon their ability to taste the bitter flavour. Using DNA sequence information from the internet, they then go on to ask the same questions for chimpanzees. Dr Leah Holmes is the project manager responsible for organising and running the workshops at Nowgen. “Our extensive programme of events for schools ensures that genetics education keeps pace with what’s happening in the fast-moving world of genetics research. These latest practical workshops allow students to get hands-on experience, applying what they learn in school and exploring some of the social and ethical issues associated with genetics. “It is exciting to invite the students into our laboratory at the Nowgen Centre, as we can provide an insight into a genetics research environment; whilst at the same time broaden students’ knowledge about potential careers in bioscience.”