ASU appoints world-renowned evolutionary biologist to lead new Biodesign Center

ASU appoints world-renowned evolutionary biologist to lead new Biodesign Center

September 6, 2017

  • Michael Lynch

    Michael Lynch, Ph.D., Director of Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution

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  • Michael Lynch

    Michael Lynch’s center studies single-celled organisms where they can watch evolution happen right "under their eyes" in real time.

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September 6, 2017

Cross-disciplinary center studies key forces behind evolution to empower life sciences

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University has announced today the appointment of world-renowned evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch, Ph.D., as the director of an ambitious new effort to advance the u­nderstanding of evolution across all scales of life, from whole populations to the key forces at work deep within a cell.

The overarching mission of Lynch’s new Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution is to understand the primary forces of evolution to empower all areas of the life sciences and solve key practical and urgent societal issues such as our understanding of mutation and disease.

“We are thrilled to add Mike to our growing Biodesign faculty ranks. He is an extremely creative scientist and considered one of the top people in the world in his own field, a real rock star,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute. “We’re very excited about expanding Biodesign’s unique approach to science along with an evolutionary perspective.”

A new era of discovery

In the past decade alone, headline generating discoveries in evolutionary biology have been redefining the essence of what makes humans unique.

From the first DNA evidence of ancient hominid interbreeding to mapping the migration patterns of modern humans from the past 200,000 years to global efforts to understanding all human mutation and variation like the 1,000 Genomes Project, these discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg.

“We live in an incredible time to be evolutionary biologists,” said Lynch.  “We have all the resources at hand to understand evolutionary biology due to our ability to sequence genomes at a very high rate and increasingly economical way. For instance, soon, many of us will have our human genomes sequenced for what amounts to be just a fair amount of pocket change.”

While the results of evolution often occur over eons or the adaptation of life to environments over millions of years, Lynch’s Biodesign Center focuses on trying to understand the fundamental origins of these changes in real time.

Evolution in action

“Evolution is fundamental to all of biology,” explains LaBaer. “Mike uses single-celled organisms where he can watch evolution happen right under his eye in real time.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with deciphering the deep general forces at work during evolution,” said Lynch. “Evolution starts with mistakes. These are evolutionary changes that work deep within the cellular level for all of life.”

To do so, they often perform adaptation experiments using a menagerie of organisms subjected to different environments, often over hundreds or thousands of generations.  

They cultivate single-celled green algae, yeast, Paramecium, as well as plants and the one-millimeter sized worm C. elegans in the lab to look for the common cellular processes at work.  

Then, they trace how mutation affects the survival of whole populations to compare across life, from single-celled organisms to ourselves.

“My lab has been working on mutation for quite some time, and now we can get some answers due to whole genome sequencing about the pace and spectrum of mutations that we couldn’t obtain before.”

Throughout his career, Lynch has pushed the boundaries in our understanding of mutation as the driving force of a given species’ adaptation to its environment and trying to trace the changes seen in life’s DNA blueprints through the physical traits they can observe.

Endless forms most beautiful

These include all the interactions between an­ organism’s fitness, health and disease through Charles Darwin’s revolutionary concept that first explained the process of how a species that becomes better adapted to its environment tend to survive and produce more offspring---natural selection. ­

It’s been a little over 150 years since Darwin gave us this great book,” said Lynch. “Darwin was the big integrator, not just in the biological sciences, but the geological sciences and so on, more so than anyone before.”

Since the publication of the "Origin of Species," Darwin’s fundamental concept has stood the test of time again and again, from discoveries in classical genetics to the structure of DNA to modern molecular biology and the first whole organism genome projects. 

Natural selection remains the primary explanation for adaptive evolution.

“It’s been so influential, that many biologists think natural selection is the most powerful force in the universe. It’s quite powerful, but it’s not all-powerful.”

Lynch sees natural selection at work by focusing on the mechanisms of evolution at the gene, genomic, cellular and trait level, with special attention being given to the roles of mutation across populations.  

This was one of the central themes of his 2007 book, “The Origins of Genome Architecture,” which summarized the effects of population sizes on the changes seen within their DNA.

Across all scales of life

“The focus is that much of what we see at the genomic level, and now at the cellular level, cannot be explained by natural selection,” said Lynch. "In fact, much of lineage variation can only be explained by the lack of efficient selection.

Evolution is a population-level process, and the underlying philosophy of our research is that nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.

I like to think of how evolution works in the context of a population’s given genetic environment. It dictates how efficient natural selection can be, and how easy it is to promote beneficial mutations while eliminating harmful mutations.”

Lynch has been trying to understand the connections between the mutations in a population, the effects of reshuffling its genomic deck during recombination, and how those mutations spread through a population with genetic drift, with what is going on deep inside cells.

“How the features of cells evolve is almost a complete blank in evolutionary biology,” said Lynch. “But all adaptations initially come from within the cell, and I’m interested in developing a field called evolutionary cell biology. There is still a long way to go.”

Using a multidisciplinary approach that combines his long-term evolution experiments with state of the art computational tools, biophysics, and high-powered mathematical theory and modeling, Lynch wants to better understand the roles of molecules, their relative abundances, and the ways in which they interact inside cells that can put biophysical constraints on what can happen in evolution.

By comparing how single-celled organisms can adapt, Lynch ultimately wants to further our insights by building a comparative evolutionary cell biology across life.

World of opportunity

Lynch will add to the faculty ranks of prestigious National Academy of Science members and Nobel Laureates at ASU and the Biodesign Institute.  He has also served nationally and internationally as past president of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, the American Genetics Association, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

With the expansion of research space in Biodesign Building C, which is set to open next summer, Lynch’s new Biodesign Center will be greatly expanded by the addition of at least six faculty positions, along with numerous research scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

In addition to his Biodesign appointment, Lynch will hold a faculty appointment in the School of Life Sciences and looks forward to interacting with other ASU areas of expertise, including colleagues: Reed Cartwright (bioinformatics and quantitative evolution), Jeff Jensen (population geneticist), Carlo Maley (evolution of cancer), Marco Mangone (bioinformatics), Susanne Pfeifer (computational molecular biologist), Wade Van Horn (structural biology), Arvind Varsani (molecular virologist), and Melissa Wilson-Sayres (computational biologist and evolution of sex chromosomes), Randy Nesse’s Center for Evolution and Medicine and the ASU School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“When one considers the other recent hires made here, and the high incidence of interdisciplinary research both within the Biodesign and across campus, there is a real opportunity to rapidly establish ASU as the world center for the study of evolutionary processes,” said Lynch.

Lynch was recently recruited from Indiana University, where he served for more than a decade, most recently as the distinguished professor of Evolution, Population Genetics and Genomics.

He has more than published more than 200 papers in the field, including four books, including a two-volume textbook on quantitative genetics, "Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits," co-written with Bruce Walsh (of the University of Arizona).

Lynch originally training as a limnologist---the science of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes--- where he got his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

Throughout his career, he has held faculty positions at the University of Illinois, the University of Oregon, and Indiana University. In 2009, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (Evolutionary Biology). Lynch was a Biology undergraduate at St. Bonaventure University and received a B.S. in 1973.