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Jared Diamond to Open International Genetic Diversity Symposium

August 27, 2008

Evolutionary biologist and author Jared Diamond will present the opening keynote address for an international symposium on agricultural biodiversity, to be held Sept. 14-18 at the University of California, Davis.

The Harlan II International Symposium, the successor to a program held 11 years ago in Syria, is dedicated to the late crop evolutionist Jack R. Harlan. It will focus on the importance of using and conserving not just a diversity of species, but also genetic diversity within species.

In opening the symposium, Diamond will discuss whether environmental factors, rather than pure chance, led to the uneven distribution around the world of plant and animal species suitable for domestication and agricultural use. His public presentation on Sunday, Sept. 14, will begin at 6:15 p.m. in 123 Science Lecture Hall at UC Davis. Admission to the talk and the preceding reception will cost $50 per person.

Diamond maintains that the adoption of agriculture was "the most important event in the last 50,000 years of human history." As people developed the ability to cultivate crops and raise animals, they were able to produce a surplus of food, which fueled population growth and led to settled living, technology, social stratification and political centralization, he notes.

He points out that the societies with the greatest variety of plant species suitable for farming expanded earlier and farther than did societies in areas with the fewest farmable plant species -- and no animal species -- that were easily domesticated. For example, cultures in the Fertile Crescent, China, the Andes, and Meso-America -- the land between central Mexico and Nicaragua -- flourished, while cultures in areas such as Eastern North America and Highland New Guinea did not.

Diamond will question whether environmental factors in different regions predisposed wild animal and plant species in those areas to develop traits conducive to domestication.

A complete program for the Harlan II symposium is available online at: http://harlanii.ucdavis.edu/main/speakers_topics.htm. For fee information and a list of talks and tours, click on "registration" at the left of this page.

Among the speakers during the three-day symposium will be:

Monday, Sept. 15, 9 a.m. -- Robert Wayne, a UCLA biology professor and expert on canine genetics, will discuss what the analysis of the dog genome -- the entire collection of genes for the animal family that includes domestic dogs, wolves, foxes and coyotes -- tells about the evolutionary history of these animals and how the various species are related.

Monday, Sept. 15, 1:30 p.m. -- Doyle McKey, Universite de Montpellier II and the Center of Evolutionary and Functional Ecology, Montpellier, France, will discuss ecological approaches to crop domestication, using manioc, or cassava, as an example of how ecology can be integrated with genetics and ethnobiology -- the study of how people interact with the living environment -- to test plant-domestication scenarios.

Tuesday, Sept. 16, 9:30 a.m. -- Anthropologist Melinda Zeder, director of the archaeobiology program for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, will discuss her latest research on when and where in the world animals were first domesticated.

Tuesday, Sept. 16, 6 p.m. -- Keynote speaker Gary Nabhan, an ecologist and pioneer in the local-food movement from the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, will compare the crop diversity found by plant explorer N.I. Vavilov between 1916 and 1936, with the remaining diversity that Nabhan found in the same areas in nine countries on five continents three quarters of a century later. Nabhan says that an understanding of how biodiversity in local agricultural systems has changed may help predict how well farmers may be able to adapt to rapid climate change, globalization, water scarcity, and weed or pest invasions.

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 8 a.m. -- M. Kat Andersen, a plant ecologist in UC Davis' Department of Plant Sciences and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, will discuss how Native Californians cultivated naturally occurring plants as sources of food even before the first Europeans arrived and how some of those practices are being applied in certain sectors of modern agriculture today.

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 9 a.m. -- Dennis Hedgecock, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Southern California, will discuss the importance of conserving genetic resources in aquaculture, which he says is now the fastest-growing sector of global food production. He will discuss the challenges in both conserving and utilizing the planet's imperiled aquatic biodiversity, when faced with the threat of overfishing, species introductions, interactions of wild and farmed stocks, ocean warming and ocean acidification.

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 11 a.m. -- Charles Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at UC Davis, will discuss genetic resources of brewing yeast, which he says is the best example of the major advances that have been made in just a few decades in understanding the physiology, biochemistry and genetics of yeasts and other microorganisms.

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 11:30 a.m., -- James Lapsley, adjunct associate professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology and chair of the Department of Science, Agriculture, and Natural Resources in UC Davis Extension, will talk about the introduction to California of Vitis vinifera, the grape species that includes most traditional European wine grapes. Lapsley is author of the book "Bottled Poetry," a history of California winemaking.

News media who would like to attend all or parts of the symposium free of charge should RSVP to Pat Bailey, News Service, (530) 752-9843, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu.

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