Allan Wilson, Evolutionary: Biochemist, Biologist, Giant of Molecular Biology

2008
Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Tom White, W. Geoffrey Owen, David Penny
Directed by George Andrews
DVD, color, 41 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Biology, Genetics


Reviewed by Erin O'Toole, Science and Technology Librarian, University of North Texas, Denton

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 6/30/2009

This inspiring film is a must-see for college students in the biological sciences. It presents the legacy of the creative and determined Dr. Allan Wilson (1934-1991), professor of Biochemistry at University of California—Berkeley and pioneer in molecular evolution. Wilson’s marvelous story starts in New Zealand, where he was born, raised on a dairy farm and attended King’s College in Auckland and the University of Ostago. Wilson did his doctoral work in the United States at Berkeley and later returned there as a faculty member in the Biochemistry Department. He was always fascinated by the birds in New Zealand, the different species and how they might be related. His twin interests in zoology and biochemistry were the foundation for his discoveries in evolution.

Wilson launched the field of molecular evolution, which made it possible to quantitatively measure evolution. He introduced the concept of the “molecular clock,” and used it to estimate when humans and chimps diverged in evolution. Wilson’s lab was the first to study the evolution of modern humans using mitochondrial DNA. Their work identified the “Mitochondrial Eve” who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. Wilson’s work was controversial, but not just because he proved that all humans originally came from Africa and that humans are much more closely related to chimps than previously thought. He was controversial among scientists because he was conducting research in the former territory of paleontologists and anthropologists, and applying biochemical methods, which were not widely accepted until years after he had published. Wilson was not deterred and went on to apply his techniques to ancient DNA.

Obviously, a lot of effort went into making Allan Wilson, Evolutionary a seamless and professional production. At least a dozen people share their reminiscences of Wilson and his research, including his brother, his wife, his former graduate students, and former colleagues and peers in the sciences. Voiceovers of Wilson accompany old photographs of Wilson, his family and coworkers. Live footage shows the various landscapes in New Zealand and the United States where Wilson lived. Diagrams and animations illuminate the descriptions of the “molecular clock,” DNA replication and other molecular processes. All of these visual and audio contributions greatly enhance the content of the film.

College students who have already been introduced to molecular biology and evolution will gain the most from Allan Wilson, Evolutionary. They may be surprised to learn that Allan Wilson was the originator of many concepts they now study. Senior high school students in AP Biology will also be able to grasp most of the content of the film. Adults with an interest in science will appreciate the production values of the DVD, even if they do not understand all of the details of molecular evolution.