Sarah Otto

Canada Research Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution

Tier 1 - 2009-12-01
The University of British Columbia
Natural Sciences and Engineering

604-822 2778

Research involves

Using mathematical, experimental, and genomic tools to understand evolution.

Research relevance

This research investigates the ability of populations to adapt to environmental challenges, the genetic basis of these adaptations, and the factors promoting diversification versus extinction.

Solving the Puzzles of Evolution

Dr. Sarah Otto, Canada Research Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution, likes puzzles so much she has devoted her research career to solving some of the toughest mysteries in evolutionary biology.

One of the most basic and challenging riddles Otto faces is why life is so remarkably diverse at every level—from the way species look on the surface, right down to how their genomes are organized.

She has shown, for instance, that evolution favours “reduced” genomes in parasites because this simplicity helps parasites evade recognition. But the reverse holds true for hosts, for whom “duplicated” genomes improve their ability to recognize and eliminate different types of parasites. This information could be extremely useful in fighting parasites that cause diseases such as malaria and the sexually transmitted disease trichomoniasis.

Otto’s research group has also established a statistical foundation to determine whether a species’ particular trait is common because it promotes the formation of new species, decreases the risk of extinction, or is just persistent and unlikely to change.

Otto’s current research is turning to the puzzles of adaptation. Looking at plants and yeast, she is examining the limits of a species’ ability to adapt to environmental challenges, and how much of the genome contributes to this adaptation.

The results of Otto’s work provide insight into how and why the world’s species have become so diverse, and helps build a more solid foundation for understanding how species will be able to adapt to environmental changes in the future.