Sarah Tishkoff, Ph.D. | University of Pennsylvania

"Human evolution and adaptation in Africa"

Abstract: Africa is thought to be the ancestral homeland of all modern human populations within the past 300,000 years. It is also a region of tremendous cultural, linguistic, climatic, and genetic diversity. Despite the important role that African populations have played in human history, they remain one of the most underrepresented groups in human genomics studies. A comprehensive knowledge of patterns of variation in African genomes is critical for a deeper understanding of human genomic diversity, the identification of functionally important genetic variation, the genetic basis of adaptation to diverse environments and diets, and the origins of modern humans. We have characterized genomic variation in thousands of ethnically and geographically diverse Africans in order to reconstruct human population history and local adaptation to variable environments. We identify ancient common ancestry among geographically diverse hunter-gatherer populations. In addition, we have identified candidate genes that play a role in adaptation to infectious disease, diet, high altitude, skin color, and stature.

Bio: Sarah Tishkoff is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor in Genetics and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, holding appointments in the School of Medicine and the School of Arts and Sciences. She is also Director of the Penn Center for Global Genomics and Health Equity. Dr. Tishkoff studies genomic and phenotypic variation in ethnically diverse Africans. Her research combines field work, laboratory research, and computational methods to examine African population history and how genetic variation can affect a wide range of traits – for example, why humans have different susceptibility to disease, how they metabolize drugs, and how they adapt through evolution. Dr. Tishkoff is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of an NIH Pioneer Award, a David and Lucile Packard Career Award, a Burroughs/Wellcome Fund Career Award, an ASHG Curt Stern award, and a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) endowed chair. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel for the Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering and the Board of Global Health at the National Academy of Sciences and is on the editorial boards at PLOS Genetics, Genome Research, G3 (Genes, Genomes, and Genetics). Her research is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Liran Carmel, Ph.D. | The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

"Paleo-epigenetics: The use of ancient DNA methylation patterns to study human evolution"

Abstract: Changes in regulation are broadly accepted as key drivers of phenotypic divergence. However, identifying the regulatory changes that shaped human-specific traits remains poorly explored. I will show a method to reconstruct pre-mortem DNA methylation patterns in ancient genomes, and how it can be used to identify key anatomical differences between human groups (modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans). I will provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that may have shaped the modern human face and voice, and suggest that they arose after the split from Neanderthals and Denisovans. I will also show an anatomical reconstruction of the Denisovan, whose anatomy is virtually unknown. Finally, I will discuss how DNA methylation from bones can be used to infer DNA methylation in tissues that are not accessible in the fossil record like brain. 

Bio: Liran Carmel received MSc in physics from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and PhD in applied mathematics from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. He then pursued postdoctoral studies in molecular evolution at the National Institutes of Health. Since 2008 Liran Carmel is at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is now a professor to computational biology. He is studying a host of topics in molecular evolution, and is particularly interested in human evolution, and in understanding what makes us human. Liran Carmel is among the founder of paleo-epigenetics, a technology to reconstruct epigenetic signals in ancient genomes, thus obtaining information on ancient gene regulation.

Alex Pollen, Ph.D. | University of California, San Francisco

"Establishing Great Ape Organoid Models to Study Genomic Events Contributing to Human Brain Evolution"

Abstract: Primate brains vary dramatically in size and organization, but the genetic and developmental basis for these differences has been difficult to study due to lack of experimental models. Pluripotent stem cells and brain organoids provide a potential opportunity for comparative and functional studies of evolutionary differences, particularly during the early stages of neurogenesis. In this talk, I will describe our initial studies evaluating the potential of human and chimpanzee organoid models to recapitulate features of normal brain development and to reveal evolutionary differences in developmental gene expression patterns. Ultimately, great ape organoid models, anchored in comparisons to available primary tissue, could be applied beyond studies of progenitor cell evolution to decode the genetic and developmental origin of recent changes in cellular organization, connectivity patterns, myelination, synaptic activity, and physiology that have been implicated in human cognition.

Bio: Alex Pollen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF). His lab combines advances in single cell genomics, genome engineering, and great ape cerebral organoids to study specialized features and vulnerabilities of the human brain. Alex received training in evolutionary genetics and neuroscience during his PhD studies with David Kingsley at Stanford University and training in stem cell biology and cortical development during his postdoctoral studies with Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF. As a postdoctoral fellow, Alex identified molecular specializations of outer radial glia that may contribute to the developmental and evolutionary expansion of the cerebral cortex. His research has been recognized by the NIH New Innovator Award, and awards from the Cajal Club, the Damon Runyon Research Foundation, and the Schmidt Futures Foundation.

Patricia Churchland, D.Litt, B.Phil, LLD | University of California, San Diego

Keynote: "The Neurobiological Platform of Moral Conscience"

Abstract: Self-caring neural circuitry embodies self-preservation values, and these are values in the most elemental sense. Whence caring for others? The compelling line of evidence from neuroendocrinology suggests that in mammals and possibly birds, caring for others is an adaptation of brainstem-limbic circuitry whereby what counts as “me” extends to include offspring -- “me and mine”. Oxytocin is at the hub of the intricate network adaptations. In some species, strong caring for the well-being of others may extend also to include kin or mates or friends or even strangers, as the circle widens. Two additional interdependent evolutionary changes are crucial for mammalian sociality/morality: (1) modifications to the reptilian pain system that, when elaborated, yield the capacity to evaluate and predict what others will feel, know, and do, and (2) learning, strongly involving the reward system, linked to social pain and social pleasure that regulates the acquisition of the clan’s social practices and the emergence of a conscience tuned to these practices. Social problem-solving, including policy-making, is probably an instance of problem-solving more generally, and draws upon the capacity, prodigious in humans, to envision consequences of a planned action. In humans, it also draws upon the capacity for improving upon current practices and technologies. Unlike other mammals, humans have developed highly complex language, and highly complex cultures. This means that our sociality, and consequently ours systems of ethical values, have become correspondingly complex. 

Bio: Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. She is author of the pioneering book, Neurophilosophy (MIT Press 1986), and co-author with T. J. Sejnowski of The Computational Brain (MIT 1992). Her current work focuses on morality and the social brain; Braintrust: What Neuroscience tells us about Morality  (2011 Princeton U P). Touching a Nerve, published by Norton in 2013, portrays how to get comfortable with this fact: I am what I am because my brain is as it is. In June 2019, her latest book was released – Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition. She has been president of the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and won a MacArthur Prize in 1991, the Rossi Prize for neuroscience in 2008, and the Prose Prize for science for the book, Braintrust.  She was chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of California San Diego from 2000-2007.