Biotechnology Institute Explores the Myth of a Multiracial Society

Rochester Area Colleges Center of Excellence in Math and Science sponsors workshop at RIT

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A biotechnology workshop for secondary school science and technology teachers will tackle the thorny issue of race this week at the Biotechnology Institute: Human Evolution and the Genetics of Race to be held at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Bioscience Education and Technology.

Sponsored by the Rochester Area Colleges Center of Excellence in Math and Science, the workshop—running July 21 to 25—will introduce 14 teachers from school districts in Monroe County to biotechnology laboratory procedures and bioinformatics and computational applications that have revolutionized modern biomedical research.

Participants will sequence and compare their own DNA to their classmates’ and those available from databases. They will learn that the human racial identity is only a cultural construct without genetic basis.

Among biologists, “race” refers to groups within a species that display genetic differences that evolved when the groups become isolated from each other. Over time, this isolation can lead to speciation, the formation of new species.

“Human groups have never been completed isolated from each other, and there is no evidence of significant genetic differences among the races we commonly identify,” says Virginia Borden Maier, RIT and St. John Fisher biology instructor and a co-presenter of the workshop.

“Humans have not been around long enough to form races,” adds Douglas Merrill, director of RIT’s Center for Bioscience Education and Technology and a workshop presenter. “The evolution of skin color has more to do with latitude, where your ancestors migrated. If they migrated close to the poles, they evolved light skin, which helps them maximize vitamin D production in less sunny environments; if they migrated closer to the equator evolved dark skin, which protects their bodies from loss of folate, a light sensitive vitamin.”

Changing students’ perceptions of race is one of the goals of the workshop. The Biotechnology Institute will provide teachers with course materials to help them engage students in the theory of evolution, its application to human racial groups, and how to use scientific inquiry and the modern tools of biotechnology and bioinformatics to address these questions.