Sunday, March 25, 2007

Evolution megalab. Hands-on science outreach for Darwin 200. The opportunity: Darwin year 2009

The year 2009 marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. From Darwin’s birthday on February 12th to the Origin’s anniversary on November 24th there will be an unequalled spate of high-profile broadcasting and public events throughout the world. There will be public interest in every area of Darwin’s life, his science and his world. A central feature of Darwin’s genius was has ability to see evolutionary processes operating within commonplace observations of natural history. The aim of the Evolution Megalab is to show the public, of all ages from schoolchildren to grandparents, that thanks to Darwin’s illuminating insight, they too can see evolution at work in the natural world around them. Evolution is not some remote theoretical idea, it is an everyday occurrence (albeit a slowly operating one) that you can witness for yourself. The most accessible example of the science arising from this perception of evolution is provided by research on banded snails in the genus Cepaea.

Why a megalab?A megalab enables large numbers of people to contribute simple observations made at theirindividual locations to a geographical survey in order to investigate a scientific hypothesis. It offersthe general public, including families and school children, the opportunity to do real science and toexperience the excitement of discovery for themselves. The Open University has been involved inmegalabs since the 1970s. The results of a survey by Science Foundation Course students ofpolymorphism in peppered moth were even the basis of a primary research paper published in thejournal Science in 1986 (Cook, Mani & Varley; Science 231:611-613). Megalabs of various kindshave become a regular feature of BBC programming, most recently in the highly successfulSpringwatch.
Why Cepaea?The banded snails, Cepaea nemoralis and C. hortensis, occur throughmany parts of the UK and continental Europe and in most populationsdisplay easily seen polymorphism in shell colour and banding. Thegenetic basis of this variation is quite well established. In the 1930sCepaea polymorphism was often quoted as a classic example of nonadaptivevariation. Then, work by A.J.Cain and many others showedthat in some places shell polymorphism was subject to natural selectioninvolving predation by birds and that different morphs were adaptively camouflaged againstdifferent backgrounds. We now also know that there are correlations with temperature and latitudethat indicate that snail behaviour and shell morph are also locally adapted to climate, together withmany patterns of geographic variation which have not yet successfully been explained in terms ofnatural selection. During this work an unprecedented amount of information on the genetics ofBritish Cepaea populations has been accumulated, with many thousands of samples taken frommost parts of the British Isles, collected over almost a century.Evolution of shell polymorphism over the last 50 years can be expected because the two principalknown selective agents, predation by thrushes and environmental temperature, have both changedover the period. Thrushes are much scarcer now and our climate has become warmer. These eventsprovide us with a scientific rationale for re-surveying Cepaea polymorphism in 2009. The link todeclining bird populations and to climate change will help motivate the general public to participateand also illustrate the on-going nature of natural selection.The Evolution Megalab in the UKThe Royal Society is supporting the Evolution Megalab by funding the digital capture of publishedand unpublished historical data on the estimated 7,500 populations of Cepaea in whichpolymorphism has been recorded over the last 80 years. Analysis of these data by leadinggeneticists Dr Laurence Cook, Dr Robert Cameron & Prof. Steve Jones will provide the scientificunderpinning and historical context for the Megalab which will be run by the Open University in2009. In that year the public will be invited to look for banded snails in gardens and public openspaces across Britain and to report the numbers of different types (morphs) they find using mobilephones and the internet. Maps will be produced and compared with the historical data. Allparticipants will receive automated, personalized interpretations of their observations. The megalabwill be publicised in the press, on BBC 2 in a series called Darwin’s Garden and in other media.Participants will be able to follow-up an interest in evolution via a website and a short course onevolution that will be specially produced by the Open University. We also hope to provideresources for schools and for use by children of all ages.Extension of the Evolution Megalab to continental EuropeCepaea nemoralis and C. hortensis are found throughout W.Europe, extending Northwards intoScandinavia and as far East as Russia. The polymorphism has been studied by local scientists in theNetherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Ireland andIceland. Subject to funding being found, the software being created for the UK Megalab will beversioned to provide a Europe-wide megalab that will be run collaboratively with institutionselsewhere in Europe.If you represent an organization that would like to participate in any aspect of the EvolutionMegalab, please contact Prof. Jonathan Silvertown:

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