Computer scientist seeks tools for evolutionary analyses of genomes
Rice University computer scientist Luay Nakhleh has won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to further his research to create new tools and methods for tracing genetic histories and the genetic links between species.
Nakhleh and Rice alumni Dornith Doherty ’80 and Nets Katz ’90 were among the 181 Guggenheim Fellows announced April 11. The scholars, artists and scientists represent 54 disciplines and were chosen from nearly 3,000 applicants. Funded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the fellowships are awarded on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise to allow recipients six to 12 months in which they can work with creative freedom.
“It’s an honor to be among such an amazing group, and I feel fortunate to be getting this fellowship,” Nakhleh said. “I am also very excited about what this will allow me to do. The genomes of hundreds of species have been sequenced, but we need new tools and concepts if we are to use that data to answer some of the biggest questions in biology.”
Nakhleh, associate professor of computer science, ecology and evolutionary biology, and biochemistry and cell biology, was one of two recipients in the Guggenheim category of organismic biology and ecology. The award will help further his research into new methodologies and software to study the history of both specific genes and entire genomes.
Historically, researchers have adapted a familiar “family-tree” model for mapping out the lineage of genes. These “gene trees” show how genes have evolved from species to species through time. Nakhleh said gene trees are useful, but they don’t capture the full complexity of evolution. For example, scientists know that genes can sometimes be transferred between species, particularly in bacteria and plants, so an accurate description of the genetic history of a species might look more like a tangled spider web than a neatly branching tree.
“In this project we will work to develop probabilistic models that describe how gene trees fit within the branches of these species-level evolutionary histories,” Nakhleh said. “Our ultimate goal is to create tools that can address significant biological questions about how life evolved and about fundamental evolutionary processes.”
For more information about Nakhleh’s research, visit: http://bioinfo.cs.rice.edu/.
Doherty, an award-winning photographer and professor at the University of North Texas, received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete her project, “Archiving Eden,” a wide-ranging expedition to trace the elaborate systems of secure spaces and technological interventions involved in creating seed banks like the inaccessible Svalbard Global Seed Vault near the North Pole.
Katz, a professor of mathematics at Indiana University, won support for his research in additive and geometric combinatorics, harmonic analysis, geometric measure theory and fluid mechanics. Katz is currently managing editor of the Indiana University Mathematics Journal.