CARTA Members Inspire “Sweet” Retrospective

Dec 12, 2023

Illustration: Observer design; Redmond Durrell/Alamy;

CARTA and its members' exploration of human evolutionary discovery highlighted by new CARTA Member

CARTA-inspired publications remain the benchmark for assessing our organization's impact across academia. In Sickly sweet: how our sugar-coated cells helped humanity turn illness into evolution (Honigsbaum, 2023), new CARTA Member Mark Honigsbaum, lecturer at City University of London, drew upon his his expertise as a medical historian and journalist, alongside his experience as a speaker during "The Role of Myth in Anthropogeny" (Friday, May 19, 2023; the first in-person symposium at the Salk Center for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA, since the U.S. 2020 COVID-19 Lockdown).

Honigsbaum's piece traces the origins of evolutionary interests in glycobiology by Dr. Ajit Varki, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine, Founding Co-Director of CARTA, Founding Director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center (GRTC) at UC San Diego, and Adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute, and Dr. Nissi Varki, Professor of Pathology at UC San Diego. The duo's efforts were later joined by those of Dr. Pascal Gagneux, Professor of Pathology and Anthropology at UC San Diego, as well as Executive Co-Director of CARTA. These collaborations and those of many other influential CARTA luminaries have borne out Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous words, “...nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution...” (American Zoologist, 1964, p. 449).

It's important to note, "...however, Varki and Gagneux do not believe that everything can be reduced to biology. One of the key insights drawn from their study of human origins is that we are shaped as much by our cultural inheritance as by genes and biology. 'Sialic acids give us a new appreciation of how we have been directly shaped by infectious diseases,' says Gagneux. 'However, these tiny sugar molecules may also have repercussions for [cultural] processes that have nothing to do with disease'" (Honigsbaum, 2023, para. 18).

Since its inception almost 15 years ago, CARTA has evolved through variation in its membership and their fields, the questions asked and explanations explored. From sugars to plagues (and human behavioral responses), Honigsbaum distills CARTA-inspiration from his unique perspective. 


Read the full text: Honisgsbaum, M. (2023, Dec. 10). Sickly sweet: how our sugar-coated cells helped humanity turn illness into evolution. The Guardian, The Observer.

You may also wish to check out these related Open Access articles from Drs. Varki, Dr. Gagneux, and colleagues: