UAB Magazine Online Features
How Human Interaction Impacts Evolution
By Tara Hulen
Literature tells us that no man—or woman—is an island. Over millennia, humans have formed an interconnected web that spans the planet.
In fact, that interaction may play a key role in human survival. Eduardo Neiva, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Communication Studies, and James Lull, Ph.D., emeritus professor at San Jose State University, have written The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution (2012: Prometheus Books), which revolves around “the idea that communication is central to all biological development,” Neiva explains. In other words, survival goes to the most communicative as well as to the fittest. And since communication involves cooperation, the one who offers the helping hand usually has the advantage over the backstabber.
UAB Magazine: As a humanities professor, what brought you to write about what is usually a topic for biologists?
Neiva: The humanities have operated with the strict notion that what matters are differences: of cultures, of the sexes, in everything. The idea in this book is that everything is unified. Life is actually a great chain of interaction; all living forms interact with one another, and that creates change.
UAB Magazine: People usually think of that interaction in evolution in a negative way—survival of the fittest—but you don’t seem to see it like that.
Neiva: One reason we wrote the book is that we were very frustrated with some general notions that were attached to evolution—one of them is it’s all about survival of the fittest. Evolutionary theory has always favored that phrase, which has, in the popular mind, been considered the dominant factor. But that notion forgets many other things that are absolutely key to evolution, such as cooperation.
The idea is not a new one. Prince [Pyotr Alexeyevich] Kropotkin wrote a brilliant book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in 1902 about how mutual aid drives evolution. Oral traditions, passing on skills, the existence of societies—all of these advance evolution and require mutual aid.
Communication and social life are not just human traits, either, despite what people often think of as the rule. Social life is everywhere. Bees, for instance, are a marvel of elaborate social division.
What Glutamate Can Teach Us About Depression, Schizophrenia, Cancer, and More
By Kathleen Yount
Glutamate is the incredible, edible neurotransmitter. This amino acid is found in chips, yogurt, and ice cream, as well as the much-maligned MSG. It is also the key ingredient that helps neurons communicate, learn, make memories, and perform other essential functions.
For years, scientists have kept an eye on glutamate, suspecting that it plays a role in several debilitating diseases. But only recently have they discovered how to do anything about it. UAB researchers are leading the way in studies that could bring new treatments and new hope for people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and even brain cancer.
All Hail the King
Glutamate is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter, which means its job is to stimulate neurons. It works in tandem with GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, to maintain balance in the brain.
Glutamate and GABA are the king and queen of neurotransmitters. All others—including the more-famous serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine—have important functions of their own, but ultimately they serve to modulate the glutamate and GABA systems.
The brain’s glutamate balancing act revolves around a highly evolved system of molecules called receptors to which glutamate binds to produce actions in the brain’s cells. Another family of molecules called transporters mops up unused glutamate after it has been released. Much of the current research on glutamate dysfunction centers on these processes of give, take, and transport, to see if understanding the exchange can shed light on what happens when the glutamate system goes wrong, and how we might make it right again.
UAB Alumna and Genetics Pioneer Dies at 82
By Bob Shepard
UAB professor emerita Sara Will Crews Finley, M.D., passed away on February 20, 2013. Finley, along with her husband, Wayne H. Finley, M.D., Ph.D., co-founded the first medical genetics program in the southeastern United States at UAB. She was co-director of the Laboratory of Medical Genetics for 30 years.
Finley held the Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair in Medical Genetics at the time of her retirement from UAB in 1996. The Finleys founded the first chromosome laboratory in the Southeast and began what was to become one of the country’s largest university prenatal genetics laboratories.
“Sara Finley was a true pioneer in medicine,” says Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., chair of UAB’s Department of Genetics and current holder of the Finley Chair in Medical Genetics. “She and her husband, Wayne, were among the first physicians to recognize the importance of the new field of medical genetics, and they were among the first to implement new technologies for culturing cells and analyzing chromosomes. These technologies helped untold numbers of families by providing new approaches to the diagnosis and classification of birth defects and genetic disorders, as well as enabling genetic counseling for families.”
Born February 26, 1930, Finley was the daughter of Jessie Mathews Crews and J.B. Crews of Lineville, Alabama. She graduated from Lineville High School, the University of Alabama, and the Medical College of Alabama. Her postgraduate training included an internship at Lloyd Noland Hospital, a three-year pediatric research fellowship at the Medical College of Alabama, and a traineeship at the Institute for Medical Genetics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
UAB Ambassadors Serve with Style
By Meghan C. Davis
They’re the Blazers in blazers. With their signature green jackets, it’s easy to spot the UAB Ambassadors around campus—greeting patrons at the Alys Stephens Center, sharing statistics with the press at basketball games, ushering visitors into the UAB Alumni House, and performing dozens of other intriguing assignments.
The UAB Ambassadors, founded in 1978, are one of the oldest and most prestigious student groups on campus. They serve as the university’s official hosts, working more than 5,000 hours of events each year, with assignments that range from leading campus tours for prospective faculty to toting Blazer statues through the crowd at the annual athletics scholarship luncheon.
“I learned about the UAB Ambassadors the first moment I walked onto campus,” says Jit Patel, the group’s current president. A senior business administration major and a member of the Business Honors Society and Global and Community Leadership Honors Program, Patel is in his second year as an ambassador. Even if he wasn’t a senior, this would be his last chance to be an ambassador. Students are only able to stay for a maximum of two years. But it wasn’t the exclusivity, or the unique networking opportunities, that first attracted Patel to the job; it was the jacket.