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New Faculty Member: Understanding Evolution at the Genomic Level

Paul HohenloheProfessor Paul Hohenlohe is the newest member of the Department of Biological Sciences’ faculty. In 2011 he was jointly appointed in Biological Sciences and in the Department of Statistical Science.

Hohenlohe’s educational background includes a B.A. in biology from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington. He worked as a conservation biologist and was a postdoctoral research associate at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. The postdoctoral position was a concurrent appointment through both institutions.

Since childhood Hohenlohe has been interested in science and particularly in wildlife. He credits this in part to PBS nature specials and in part to his enjoyment of exploring natural areas. Also, starting in high school, he became increasingly interested in evolution through reading Stephen Jay Gould’s books.

Hohenlohe first came to the University of Idaho to attend the Evolution meetings in 2009. From that experience he recognized that the Department of Biological Sciences and IBEST (Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies) had created an excellent environment for evolutionary biologists here in Moscow, and he wanted to be part of that.

“One of the strengths is that the department does such a good job of integrating biology and mathematics. We have mathematicians who really understand and have experience in biology,” he explained.

Professor Hohenlohe studies the evolution of genomes. A genome is the complete genetic information of an individual. In the last 10 to 15 years, modern technology has allowed investigators to observe evolution on this scale directly because we can gather such huge volumes of genetic sequence data.

“The idea is to study the evolution of genomes in natural populations to see how genomic structure affects evolution of particular traits,” he said.

Over the years Hohenlohe has worked on a large number of different organisms: mice, snails, snakes, threespine stickleback fish and trout. In most he has been interested in determining how natural selection works in different populations.

Currently, Hohenlohe is developing yeast as an experimental system. By using yeast, his lab can control the population size, migration rates, recombination rates, and strength of selection – critical parameters that affect the evolutionary process. With yeast, the researchers can do whole genome sequencing which means they can gather data on the entire genome of large populations of yeast cells since yeast genomes are so small. The goal is to better understand evolution at the genomic level in a controlled environment, so that researchers working on natural populations of larger organisms can make stronger inferences about evolutionary processes from genomic data.

One graduate student, Tyler Hether, and one postdoctoral researcher, Matthieu Delcourt, work with Professor Hohenlohe. Both are deeply involved in the yeast work, exploring how evolution in a controlled setting results in genome-scale patterns. In addition, Hether is interested in gene regulatory interactions. He studies multiple genes that interact to determine phenotype (organismal level traits), and he works on mathematical models of gene regulatory interactions and how those interactions affect the ability of different populations to evolve.

Delcourt also is working on mathematical modeling of genomic patterns of genetic differentiation between populations. The idea, once again, is to strengthen the inferences that researchers can make about evolutionary processes from the wealth of data now available. The goal is to control the factors that affect evolution in an experimental setting and see what the outcome is.

The work in the lab is supported by start-up funding from IBEST. They also have two BEACON grants. (Beacon is a National Science Foundation Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.) And Dr. Delcourt has support from INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence).

Professor Hohenlohe teaches Biol 421: Advanced Evolutionary Biology every fall. Every other year he will teach a graduate level course, Biol 522: Molecular Evolution.

Hohenlohe and his wife Jennifer have two young children. When he has time, he likes to ski and play bluegrass music. His instruments of choice are the banjo and the dobro.