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Haverford College

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Karl Johnson is an associate professor of biology whose research into the architecture of cells, particularly in structure/function relationships, has potential applications in the medical treatment of respiratory ailments and reproductive problems, as well as cancer.

“Looking forward to 2004, extraordinarily exciting things are happening in the field of evolutionary biology. The 21st century dawned with publication of the complete sequence of the human genome, and within a few years the breadth of our knowledge has grown from a mere handful to hundreds of these 'books of life.' Genomes hold vast troves of information; they contain histories of life’s innovations, the origins of species, and quite literally the bases of commonality, diversity, and individuality. However, many of these secrets have yet to be revealed, awaiting close reading and comparison of significant texts from life’s library.

Within the next few months, the anticipated publication of the chimpanzee genome will offer one such opportunity to contrast our genome with that of another primate. The genomes of humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical, having diverged from a common ancestor only five million years ago. The chapters of our genomic stories that remain the same will define us as primates, while those that have changed will emphasize why we are different. There are already indications of fascinating distinctions between our species with respect to such key functions as olfaction, hearing, reading, speech, brain development, and cognition. In the coming months look for many answers, and still more questions, emerging from this unique self-study.

A different story is unfolding, literally worlds apart, that also may radically change our view of ourselves. As Spirit begins its exploration of the Mars surface, soon to be joined by Opportunity, the search for water, and perhaps life, on the Red Planet has taken a major step forward. The debate about life in the universe continues unabated, but it is clear that the discovery of life on another planet would be one of the defining moments of human endeavor. Extraterrestrial life, perhaps the result of parallel emergence during the billions of years of our solar system’s existence, would offer an amazing counterpoint to the closer analysis of the primate family tree and would lead to incredible insights into life in all its forms. While some say the chance is slim, the possibilities are, well, cosmic. Stay tuned!”


The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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