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Joanna Kelley: Signatures of Adaptation

Joanna Kelley: Signatures of Adaptation
Assistant Professor, Washington State University
Recommended by Carlos Bustamante, Stanford University

Kelley.jpgWhen Joanna Kelley started to think about what she wanted to do with her mathematics degree after college, she realized that what intrigued her the most about math was its ability to describe the natural world. She added on another major in biology that focused on ecology and evolution, and after college she started her PhD studying the genetic basis of adaptation in people.

But to really get into the nitty-gritty of adaptation and function, which is difficult to do in people, Kelley looked for a different system and stumbled upon a fish that has adapted to live in sulfidic streams in Mexico. In addition, she found that multiple populations of that fish as well as other species throughout the world have adapted to living in sulfidic streams.

"And I thought, 'Wow, what an amazing opportunity to study the genomic basis of adaptation,'" she said.

Her lab is currently working on comparing those fish populations and aims to then move into comparing how the different species adapted to that sulfidic environment. From that, Kelley said, they'll be able to begin to address the questions of: "Do we see different changes? Are there general patterns that we see over and over again? Or do we see that each fish has a different mechanism for long-term population survival?"

Kelley started her lab at Washington State at the end of the summer and she said that one of the biggest challenges so far has been adjusting from being the trainee to being the trainer. "As a PI, your role is so different and the things that you need to do are different," she said, adding that running a lab is like running a small business. "We need to bring money in, we need to hire people, we need to manage people, balance a budget."

Paper of note

In a 2008 Genetics paper, Kelley and her mentor Willie Swanson examined a gene involved in tooth enamel formation and selection on that gene. They sequenced the enamelin gene in 100 human individuals from 10 populations and examined the evolutionary history of that gene in 12 primate species, and found evidence of positive selection on the gene. They hypothesized that shifts in diet were linked to changes to the enamelin gene.

"It represents, generally, the ideas that I am interested in," Kelley noted.

Looking ahead

With changes to sequencing technology and the increased ability to draw DNA from ancient samples and sequence it, Kelley said that the population genomics field is poised for change.

"I think that in addition to just giving us incredible insight that we did not have before into population histories, [ancient DNA will also influence] the way that we analyze that data and incorporate that data," she said, adding that it is "going to really revolutionize population genomics in the next five years."

And the Nobel goes to…

"I would want to win it for using natural ecological systems to gain insight for biomedical importance," Kelley said.