Over the four billion years that life has evolved on this planet, organisms have acquired amazing phenotypes. Some, like the spots on a butterfly wing, might capture our attention by their sheer beauty. Others get us excited in a very different way—by their translational relevance. Ecologists have catalogued remarkable stress resistance traits in the natural world, which have arisen to solve problems similar to those we face in biotechnology settings. Genetically, we don’t yet understand how most such characters came to be. What did it take for evolution to engineer the longevity of naked mole rats, or the drought tolerance of sorghum? Where are the underlying alleles in the genome? As we learn the answers, we can borrow nature’s genetic building blocks for our own rational design of new materials, new drugs, and new crops.
Motivated by the ultimate applications of evolutionary genetics in eukaryotes, I have devoted my career to developing experimental and analysis methods for the field. Much of my lab's work has focused on deeply diverged phenotypic differences. In many cases, a trait of biological interest is a defining feature of its species (say, naked mole rats or sorghum), acquired long ago to adapt to a unique niche. Now, millions of years later, the focal species has lost the ability to interbreed with relatives in other environments. This poses a technical problem if we want to find the genes that nature used to build the trait. Standard tools for this purpose, referred to as linkage and association mapping, rely on progeny from crosses; we can’t do the latter, by definition, between reproductively isolated species. As such, mapping genotype to phenotype across species boundaries has remained a major challenge for the field.
My lab helps to fill this analysis gap with new methods for interspecies genetics. We often use wild fungal strains and species to develop our approaches, and we then collaborate with organismal colleagues to get these strategies working in higher eukaryotes. In each such study, we uncover the genetics of trait variation between long-diverged taxa and we use the results to inform new models for adaptation over long timescales.