Field Focus: High-Quality Genome Sequences Inform the Study of Human Evolution

Leafing through my favorite biology textbook from a handful of years ago, I was struck by the relative brevity of the chapter on human evolution. While other fields of biological research have enjoyed a steady gallop of productivity over the last few decades due in part to advances in computing power, imaging technology and experimental methods, the study of human evolution can be seen as having lagged behind until recently due to an almost complete dependence on fossil evidence.

Fortunately, contemporary biology textbook chapters on human evolution are being primed for a serious upgrade thanks to the recent availability of high-quality genome sequences from diverse modern human populations as well as from ancient humans and other non-human hominids, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans (but, for purposes of this story, not the Great Apes).

Modern human skull (left) and Neanderthal skull (right), shown to scale. There are not enough Denisovan bone fragments to reconstruct its skull. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, hairymuseummatt.

What are the new resources for studying human evolution?

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped precipitously in the last decade. As a result, more complete human genome sequences become available for analysis with each passing year.

For example, the 1000 Genomes Project Exit icon includes more than 1,000 full human genome sequences of individuals from European, Asian, American and Sub-Saharan African populations. Earlier this year, the Simons Genome Diversity Project Exit icon further increased the number of available human genomes by adding 300 individuals representing 142 populations around the globe. Continue reading

Student Researcher Finds New Clues About Flu with Old Data

Do you like to find new uses for old things? Like weaving old shirts into a rug, repurposing bottles into candle holders or turning packing crates into tables? Katie Gostic, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate student, likes finding new uses for old data. She channeled this interest when she analyzed existing data to study whether childhood exposure to flu affects a person’s future immunity to the disease.

Katie Gostic
Gostic conducted research for the flu project during the summer of 2015 when she was visiting her boyfriend, a tropical biologist, in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. Credit: Charlie de la Rosa.

As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, Gostic was originally pursuing a degree in engineering. Her focus shifted to biology after taking an infectious disease modeling class. Gostic’s background in math and programming allows her to take large, complex pre-existing data sets and reanalyze them using new tools and methods. The result: Information that wasn’t accessible when the data were first collected.

Now a graduate researcher in the ecology and evolutionary biology lab of James Lloyd-Smith Exit icon, Gostic studies infectious diseases. The lab builds mathematical models to investigate zoonotic diseases—diseases that animals can transmit to humans but that humans don’t frequently spread between each other. Examples include diseases caused by Leptospira, a type of bacteria that infects household pets and many other animals, and monkeypox, a virus whose transmission to humans is increasing since the eradication of smallpox. The lab also studies bird flus, a category of flu viruses that infect birds and other animals and only occasionally jump to people. A very small number of cases of human-to-human transmission of bird flus have been recorded. However, if a bird flu virus mutated in a way that allowed it to spread among humans, it could cause a pandemic. Continue reading

On this Darwin Day, Evolutionary Geneticist Dr. Dan Janes Discusses the Scientific Contributions of Charles Darwin

This Sunday, February 12, is Darwin Day—an occasion to recognize the scientific contributions of 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin. In this video (originally posted on Darwin Day 2016), our own evolutionary geneticist, Dan Janes, answers questions about Darwin and the role of evolution in health and biomedicine.

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Not Discounting His Future: Austin Works Toward His Goals

This is the second post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.

Austin Phanouvong
Credit: Christa Reynolds.
Austin Phanouvong
Academic Institution: Portland State University
Major: Biology
Minor: Chemistry
Mentor: Suzanne Mitchell
Favorite Book: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Favorite Food: Sushi
Hobbies: Hiking, cooking and traveling

BUILD and the Diversity Program Consortium

The Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) aims to enhance diversity in the biomedical research workforce through improved recruitment, training and mentoring nationwide. It comprises three integrated programs—Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), which implements activities at student, faculty and institutional levels; the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which provides mentoring and career development opportunities for scientists at all levels; and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC), which is responsible for evaluating and coordinating DPC activities.

Ten undergraduate institutions across the United States have received BUILD grants, and together, they serve a diverse population. Each BUILD site has developed a unique program intended to engage and prepare students for success in the biomedical sciences and maximize opportunities for research training and faculty development. BUILD programs include everything from curricular redesign, lab renovations, faculty training and research grants, to student career development, mentoring and research-intensive summer programs.

Austin Phanouvong, 21, likes biology because it teaches him about life.

“Even the way we walk, the way we breathe – there’s all these little components to it that we don’t even think about but they’re very helpful, and one hiccup in that system can lead to many diseases and sicknesses,” Phanouvong says.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Phanouvong is a senior at Portland State University (PSU), where he is in the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) EXITO program. As a student in BUILD EXITO Exit icon (which stands for “Enhancing Cross-Disciplinary Infrastructure and Training at Oregon”), Phanouvong takes biomedical science courses, conducts research and participates in professional development workshops and seminars. He has learned about preparing a CV and writing personal statements. In spring 2017, Phanouvong will graduate with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. He will continue to pursue research opportunities as he applies for medical school, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. in the future.

Since high school, Phanouvong’s desire has been to help people through a healthcare career. Originally, he was interested in nursing, but he decided he could push his career plans and education farther by going to medical school. Because of his interest in hands-on research, last year Phanouvong’s honors thesis advisor recommended he apply for the BUILD program, and Phanouvong realized BUILD EXITO would be a great opportunity to engage in research as an undergraduate student. Continue reading