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Open Classroom

New challenges of biology: from Neanderthals to the Prestige

14, 16, 21, 23, 28, 30 March, and 4, 6 April 2006
Image of the Lecture

The participants summarise their talks

  • On how Molecular Biology gives new answer to ancient problems
    Víctor de Lorenzo

    Molecular Biology is the science with a higher impact over the society of the change of millennium. If Physics and Chemistry by the end of the19th century and the beginning of 20th century set the basis for the explosive development of communications, drugs, and new materials that characterize our way of living, Experimental Biology is without doubt the frontier of knowledge of our time, and also the origin of the accelerated changes of our generation. As a matter of fact, Molecular Biology is already a referent of all discipline that address the living world: Botanics, Ecology, Zoology, Nutrition, Microbiology, etc., and of course Medicine and Agriculture. But this does not end here. The generalization of of the techniques and concepts of Molecular Biology is affecting decisively the basis of traditional Humanities. No psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist or archaeologist can ignore today what the Neurophysiology, the sequencing of the Human Genome, or Sociobiology tells us about man or society. These changes and their social impact have become exacerbated in the last ten years, and it is rare the day that the mass media do not reflect this. Recombining hormones, transgenic plants, in vitro cultivated tissues, prenatal diagnosis, the xenotransplantation, new anti-cancer therapies, the forensic use of the the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), are just a few examples of the products and techniques born out of Molecular Biology, and that are now irreversibly installed among us.

    It seems that we have entered in a kind of schizophrenia where Society is eager to take benefit from the applications of science specially in the Biomedical field, but flatly rejects a change of vision about itself in regards to the results of research in the Sciences of Life. Nevertheless, there is still much to be learned from these debates, in the sense that they produce new questions and allow to capitalize for the research some of the methodologies coming from fields other than Experimental Biology.

  • Microorganisms to the rescue in environmental catastrophes
    Fernando Rojo

    The bacteria have been capable of colonizing all kind of environments, even the most extreme. The bacterial biology is optimized to evolve continuously and adapt to new conditions. This is why bacteria play a fundamental role in the recycling of organic material and the maintenance of the biological cycles, and thus, in the preservation of the environment. Nevertheless, there are may components both natural and synthetic, that the bacteria struggle to assimilate.

    The analysis of the biodegradable capacity of the bacteria, and of their response to the presence of toxic contaminants, give us very valuable information  about how to face contamination problems and facilitate the labour of the microorganisms to mitigate the problem. Currently, a great number of microorganisms capable of degrading different types of contaminants have been isolated and characterized. And yet, it seems clear that although they may be present in a ubiquitous way in many different habitats, there are a series of factors that help several contaminants to not be degraded correctly and become accumulated, causing serious issues. The techniques of bioremediation pretend accelerating and forcing these processes of biodegradation, although in the practice their effectiveness is variable. In the conference we will use the case of the petroleum to explain these aspects.

  • Living beings: a cellular factory formed by biological machines
    José Mª Valpuesta
    We could compare the cell with a factory where a multitude of processes are developed in a coordinated and sequential way. These are done by a great number of machines, normally proteins or a set of them, which are beautifully adapted to their purpose, as their energetic efficiency is very superior to anything that mankind has ever developed. These machines are normally configured in a similar way to a production line, and their products are transported through it so the final product can be exported or used for internal consume. The cellular factory, in opposition to the ones built by mankind, is flexible and adapts to the different needs, due to the external structure with which the cells are built, the cytoskeleton, that is made fundamentally by polymers of the actin and tubulin proteins, very strong and at the same time flexible materials that are used in a very dynamic way by the cells. The cellular factory also has its own power plants, the mitochondria, where the energy needed for the different processes is produced . In the cellular factory we find a quality control department with two key roles, fixing the machines broken and the destruction and recycling of those that are no longer worth keeping.
  • Reconstructing human history from genome
    Jaume Bertranpetit

    The knowledge on our genome is discovering the most profound intimacies of ourselves: our biological and genetical basis is being know with more detail each day. But the study of the genome provides us with much more. This way, for example, when comparing our genome with other species (e.g., the chimpanzee), we have been struck by their similarities: we only posses 1% of differences. And the similarity is even more surprising when compared to other, more distant, species. The study of the genome allows us to reconstruct the evolutionary process in regards to the species that are closer to ours, proving to be a powerful tool to reconstruct the past.

    Nevertheless, these results pose new questions; among them, the question about what makes us human and how in our genes we try to identify our evolutionary singularity. Without doubt what makes us human must be found in the differences we observe in our genome in comparison to other species, and these will lie at the basis of the formation of the human specific traits, including language and cerebral complexity.

    The comparison of genomes can also be done within our own species providing us with the keys to reconstruct our species' evolutionary history and providing us with the basis to reconstruct the proliferation of our ancestors in Earth: genetics in the aid of reconstructing the great travel of the first humans. The knowledge of the human genome sequence opens a new era of comprehension of the genetical diversity within our species, between the different human populations and even between individuals.

  • The factories of plastic of the future: bacteria that are willing to work for us
    Mª Auxiliadora Prieto

    The massive use of plastics derived from the petrochemical industry and their resistance to biodegradation have produced mainly two problems from the point of view of Environmental Biotechnology: a) the contamination through the accumulation of those plastic residues in different terrestrial and aquatic environments, and b) an increase in the emission of CO2 to the atmosphere, and thus, of the greenhouse effect. This has made it mandatory to explore new alternative materials like the bioplastics, with mechanical properties equivalent to the conventional plastics, but less contaminating, and whose production is compatible with a sustainable development.

    Among the bioplastics that are currently considered as possible alternatives, the most promising and worth highlighting are the polymers produced by certain bacterias that accumulate them in the interior of the cells in the shape of carbon reserve granules for when the growing conditions of the culture are not optimal. Once extracted they can be modified chemically, and produce a great variety of semi-synthetic polymers that are synthesized through the use of renewable sources (vegetable oils, natural sugars, etc.). Apart of its mechanical properties, that allows us to use them for the same things as the conventional plastics, bioplastics of natural origin have two other very relevant properties. On one hand, they are biodegradable, this is, they are degraded through  natural recycling processes and are eliminated of the environment through the attack of bacteria and fungi that are part of the soils' flora. And on the other hand, they are biocompatible, so they can be introduced in the human body without any adverse reactions (allergies, rejections, etc.). This second property makes them ideal for the fabrication of surgical material, artificial tissues, drugs of sustained-release, etc.  

  • Genes and ecology: the challenges of biodiversity conservation
    Pedro Jordano
    One of the main challenges the conservation biology faces is the preservation of biodiversity. This is, the set of variations of life forms that inhabit the Earth. Its cataloging is a huge task with advances that unfortunately lag behind in regards to the current loss of biodiversity. Normally we understand biodiversity as the set of species, but we could also speak about the diversity of the genetic pool found in them, the different populations that compose the species. In this conference I want to summarize some of the main advances that have taken place in conservation ecology and biology after incorporating genetic techniques coming from other scientific fields like molecular biology. I will review in particular four case studies: 1) the applications in conservation of the evolutionary story of biological groups (phylogenies); 2) the complexity of the genetic structure between and within different species (the trees of the Iberian Peninsula); 3) the analysis of the complex long-distance dispersion processes in patched environments, and 4) the diagnose of the situation of highly endangered species (Iberian lynx, bearded vulture, imperial eagle).
  • The problem of chemical contamination and biology as a solution
    Juan Luis Ramos

    Life in Earth is based in the continuous flux of matter represented by the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc. Mankind has lived in equilibrium with nature along thousands of years. There is no doubt that since the end of the 18th century huge advances have been made in the industrial processes, in agriculture, in livestock, medicine, etc., which have redounded in the improvement of the quality of life. But together with these advances, the generation of huge quantities of residues have reached the biosphere causing problems in the quality of waters, soils and air, that have affected negatively the ecosystems.

    Biology in general, and Biotechnology in particular, can contribute to the solving some cases of contamination, and can alleviate the effects of the contaminants in others. For example, a good part of the gas emissions could be reduced by the use if biological filters where organisms eliminate a great variety of organic and inorganic contaminants. We also have to highlight the key role of microorganisms in the treatment of subterranean an surface waters, both in situ and ex situ, which would allow to reduce the amount of nitrates, pesticides, and heavy metals in solution.

    The contamination of soils can be eliminated making use of the combined effects of plants and microorganisms, an emerging field in which it is expected to obtain success in the treatment of toxic compounds such as DDT and dioxins. Also, Biotechnology offers the opportunity of designing custom microorganisms with new metabolic capacities that allows them to degrade toxic compounds. Equally, the survival of such recombining microorganisms could be controlled using a biological contention system.

Fundación Juan March
Castelló, 77 – 28006 MADRID – Spain
+34 91 435 42 40 – Fax: +34 91 576 34 20