Genetics and Genomics: Epigenetics, Environment, Evolution, and Ethics


Discoveries based on awareness of the genomes of literally thousands of organisms inhabiting this planet have facilitated renewed emphasis on the study of life and its meaning in the social sciences and humanities as well as in the life sciences. For every individual, experiencing and living the implications of such scientific discoveries depends on understanding the social and personal complexity embedded within the many contexts and filters applied to genomic information – in research labs, in ethics debates dealing with emerging technological capabilities, in genome databases, in social interactions, and in policy deliberations. The goal of this cluster is to explore the genome sciences in many contexts and to help students explore the biomedical, biological, historical, technological, and ethical implications of genomic advances, as well as the questions that such advances pose for understanding our past and contemplating the future of biomedicine. Each of the courses in the cluster will explore this theme from a different perspective, enabling students to evaluate the issues that we face as a society, as potential future scientists, and as individual citizens. In all four courses, students will spend significant time reading and discussing the primary scientific literature, as well as interacting via small group activities and journal club-style presentations. This cluster is designed for students with widely varied interests to potential STEM majors who want to understand the basic science, biomedical, and social implications of their future work.


Seminar: GENOME 122FS — Genetics and Epigenetics: The codes that control our genomes (NS)

Beth Sullivan, Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Many inherited cellular and physiological traits in humans are not due to changes in DNA sequence, but instead are shaped by factors such as age, diet, or environment. This course will examine sequence-independent regulation of the human genome, non-genetic diseases, environmental factors that influence or control the epigenome, and multi-generational inheritance of epigenetic information (i.e. how grandparental experiences shape descendants’ genomes). Course readings will be drawn from the primary literature (historical and current) and will be anchored on human genetics, although model systems (mouse, roundworm, fruit fly) will also be discussed. Open to students in the FOCUS program only.

Seminar: ENVIRON/BIO 148FS — Genomics of host-microbe interactions: The symbiotic web (NS, R, STS)

Jennifer Wernegreen, Associate Professor for the Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology and the Nicholas School of the Enviroment

Genomic approaches have uncovered a microbial world of astonishing diversity, including numerous microbes that interact with hosts. Our own bodies contain 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells and 150 times more bacterial genes than human genes. A deeper appreciation of microbial interactions is revolutionizing our understanding of life’s history, ecology, and human health. This course will explore how hosts and microbes affect each other’s genomes, trajectories of parasitism and mutualism, ecological significance of microbial symbionts of plants, fungi, and animals, as well as molecular and cellular mechanisms of homeostasis. Open only to students in the FOCUS program.

Seminar: GENOME 120FS/PUBPOL 186FS — Ethics of Genome Research (EI, STS, SS)

Susanne Haga, Associate Professor in Medicine, Associate Research Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

This course will examine the ethical implications raised by genetic and genomic research.  Students will gain an understanding of historical basis of human subjects protections in the U.S., the ethical pillars of research, and the issues that arise from genetics and genomics research. Case studies in genomics research will be used to illustrate various ethical implications. Reading will consist of review papers of the history of human subjects protections, federal regulations of human subjects protections, actual informed consent documents, and scientific papers from the primary scientific literature to illustrate the nature of modern research in this field. Open only to students in the FOCUS program.

Seminar: EVANTH/BIO/GENOME 128 FS — Evolutionary Genomics: Who are we, where have we been, and where are we going? (NS, R, STS)

Anne Yoder, Professor of Biology and Director of the Duke Lemur Center

We are now nearly a decade into the genomics revolution that generated data allowing us to gaze into our past, present, and future in ways that were beyond imagining when Darwin's theory of Natural Selection was first introduced. The unification of genomic data, bioinformatics, and evolutionary theory has transformed our understanding of human history, our place within the Tree of Life, and the impact that our species is having on those with whom we share the planet. This course will use the primary literature to familiarize students with the multifaceted power of genomics, with a slant towards examining human history and disease from an evolutionary perspective. Open only to students in the FOCUS program.

Faculty Director

Beth Sullivan
Beth Sullivan
  • Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
213 Research Drive, 361 CARL, Durham, NC, 27701
Campus Box: 
Box 3054 DUMC, 361 Carl, Durham, NC 27701
(919) 668-9038