Summer Course Title: From Darwin to Genomics and Biotechnology:  Advances in Modern Biology

Instructor: Professor Arkhat Abzhanov, Imperial College London and Natural History Museum, London (United Kingdom)

Description of the summer course (all teaching will be in English):

The origin of diversity of life on Earth has long fascinated mankind. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection remains the best-known explanation since 1859 when his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was published. Darwin’s theory, however, is now in the middle of a transformation, due to the tremendous advances in molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics over the past 50 years.

The first part of the course (5 lectures) introduces students to new discoveries in biological sciences and how «survival of the fittest» is understood today. A variety of topics are touched upon, from the latest ideas on the origin of life, generation of modern animal diversity during the «Cambrian Explosion» (the Big Bang of biology), to the missing transitional forms, to the origin of evolutionary novelties, and more. Is Darwin’s theory still relevant in the age of molecular biology and genomics? Can knowledge of evolution help us generate better vaccines, more productive crops and prevent or cure diseases?

The second part of the course (5 lectures) will cover key advances in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and genetics.  We will discuss tools and methods of modern biological sciences and how new ideas technologies emerge from collaboration with other fields such as `applied mathematics, physics, medicine and engineering. Each lecture section will end with a 1-hour discussion session.

After the lectures, each student will choose a topic from a list of topics related to the subjects covered, and will write an essay exploring the topic. There will be a 1-hour session to prepare students for writing the essay. Students will have two weeks to complete the essay and submit them to the professor, who will examine each essay and provide feedback both on the scientific content and writing style.     


Each lecture will last about 1.5 hours and will be followed by 20-30 minutes of question and answer period.

Course essay:

A list of topics will be provided at the end of the lecture period and each student will choose one topic for conducting impediment research and writing a focused paper of 1500 words, excluding footnotes and references. The deadline is two weeks after the lecture part of the course. All instructions will be provided.


To facilitate independent research of literature the student can be asked to generate a review essay on one of the suggested topics related to the course topics. Professor can use essay evaluations and notes from topics discussions to provide each student with an official signed Recommendation and Report Letter, which will describe the entire course and student’s participation and performance during the course.


Part 1: Classical and modern views on evolutionary biology (5 lectures)

  1. Diversity of life on Earth.  Views on biodiversity before and during Charles Darwin’s lifetime. Historical and modern approaches to understanding the relationships among living forms. What molecules-based phylogenies tell us about roles of molecules in Evolution. Historicaland modern approaches to understanding the relationships among living forms before and after Darwin.  What morphological relations and molecular trees tell us about roles of molecules in Evolution.
  1. Origin of Life Problem and Evidence for Evolution. How ideas about the origin of life changed over time and is the latest in our thinking about one of the most important questions in biology. The three theories on the history of life. Can we observe evolution? Vestigial and atavistic features, fossils, embryology and biogeography as evidence for evolution.
  1. What About the Fossil Record? Fossil evidence of previous life forms, major transitions and intermediate lineages, how complete is the fossil record and how comparable to what the genes/molecules studies reveal.  Sudden appearance (radiations) and disappearance (extinctions) of biodiversity in the fossil record – a puzzle for Darwin!
  1. Extinctions and their impact on life on Earth. How and why species become extinct? Major factors in extinction of individual species and whole ecosystems. Mass extinctions in the past and their evolutionary consequences. Mass extinction in the time of the Anthropocene (world dominated by human activity).
  1. Natural Selection and Speciation. Role of Biogeography in Evolution. What is natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) and how it actually works? What can we learn from artificial selection? Biological and morphological definitions of species. What is a species and how do we identify and distinguish different species?  What is the process that leads to evolution of a new species?  What are the different types of speciation events?  Speciation can result both in divergence and convergence. What are the main factors in natural selection? How does knowing past and present distribution can help explain evolutionary patterns?

Part 2:  Using tools and methods of genetics and cell, molecular and developmental biology

  1. Modern laboratory toolkit and use of «model» organisms in genetic research. The main molecular, cell and developmental biology techniques we use in laboratory. Genetics, genomics and proteomics methods. Organs on a chip. Cell and tissue culture engineering (applied biophysics). Overview and applications. Use of model organisms (mouse, fruitfly, zebrafish, etc) to study principles of developmental biology, biomedical diseases and origin of natural variation. 
  1. Genetic mutations, mutation screens and genetic modification. Genes to genomes. How mutations generate variation in nature. Using induced mutations to study gene functions in the laboratory. Genome manipulation and generation of transgenic animals. Genes and genomes, mutations and changes in phenotype, sources of variation. Review of genetics, genes and genomes, different types of mutations and chromosomal changes. Post-transcription regulation (mRNA and protein modifications). Mechanisms and role of epigenetics. 
  • Building a multicellular organism. From DNA to Diversity:  Basic principles of developmental biology. How one cell becomes a whale (or a human). Connections between developmental biology, medicine and evolutionary theory. DNA, proteins, cells, tissues, organs and whole organism.  How we integrate knowledge from studying different levels of biological complexity.
  • Biotechnology and Bioengineering. Using combination of ideas and methods from  biology, physics, mathematics and engineering to produce better artificial organs for humans (cyborgs) and bionic (inspired by nature) homes and devices for technological and every-day applications.
  1. Personal perspective. Discussion of real case studies from Abzhanov’s group research on genetic mechanisms for evolutionary diversity and innovation: from the field and museum to the laboratory. Studies on Darwin’s finches, dinosaurs, bats and crocodiles using geometric morphometrics, comparative genomics and functional experimentation.
  1. 1-hour Discussion session.  Discussion of all and any of the covered topics. Discussion of how science essays should be written and how they are evaluated.

Tuition, Fees and Financial Aid

The course tuition cost is $1,000; no application fee is required.
If accepted to the summer school, the full course payment must be completed by June 8, 2024.
Financial aid may be available to a limited number of summer school attendees.


Participation in the summer school is open to all interested students in grades 8-11(12), residing in any country. Proficiency in English is required due to the language of instruction.


To register for the summer school, please follow the link and complete the application form by May 29, 2024.