Research

Drawing by Alex Cagan

The heritable differences among us reflect accidental changes to the genome that arose in an individual, were shuffled into new combinations by recombination, and persisted in the population, whether by chance or because they were beneficial. Although these processes and their interactions are extremely complicated, they comprise the whole picture—which means we population geneticists are in the somewhat unusual position of knowing what we need to understand. To make sense of the variation within species—whether humans or fruit flies—and the differences between species, we need to model and characterize the interactions of mutation, recombination, demography, and natural selection.

Conversely, because heritable variation reflects the footprints of genetic and evolutionary mechanisms operating over long time scales in large populations, we can use patterns of genetic variation to learn a great deal about these processes, gaining access to effects that are too subtle or too rare to be studied in lab settings, but which have left a discernible signature over the course of evolution. Thus, studying evolution can also offer a powerful approach to questions in other disciplines of biology.

We are interested in both of these directions: in modeling how genetic and evolutionary mechanisms give rise to and maintain variation, and in learning from patterns of genetic variation about the underlying processes involved. To this end, work in the group combines large-scale genomic data analysis, statistical modeling, and some data collection. Currently, we are primarily focused on understanding adaptation in humans and the evolution of mutation and recombination among vertebrates. Research in the group is not limited to these questions, however, and benefits from the diverse interests and expertise of individual members.

For more on population genetics and some of the work going on in the group.