CBS PhD Candidate Steve Elliot Attends Evolutionary Quantitative Workshop at NIMBioS

CBS doctoral candidate Steve Elliott spent part of his 2014 summer learning some of the tools that help yield juicier grapes, meatier hogs, and woolier sheep. All with the help of computers.

Steve participated in the Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics tutorial held at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) from August 9th to the 14th. NIMBioS is housed at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. The materials for the course are freely available for everyone online here.

The tutorial was organized by Joe Felsenstein from the University of Washington and Steve Arnold from Oregon State University, and it featured instructors from throughout the US. More than forty people participated, around thirty of which were late-stage graduate students from around the world. Steve was the only person trained as a philosopher admitted to the tutorial.

The tutorial covered issues of how to model, with mathematical functions, the evolution of traits within populations of organisms, traits such as weight, height, and limb lengths. For those traits, researchers have developed a set of models that they collectively call quantitative genetic models, which build on Gregor Mendel's theories of heredity. One such model, called the breeders' equation, helps animal and plant breeders to manipulate the breeding structures of agricultural organisms, such as fruits, hogs, and sheep. With that model, breeders predict how different manipulations will change the average traits of organisms after some number of generations, traits such as juiciness, meatiness, and wooliness. Thus, with models like the breeders' equation, farmers can raise livestock and crops that yield more of the features that people use. Biologists use the models to investigate evolution more generally, outside of farms and in ecological conditions.

For six days, participants in the tutorial learned how to use models like the breeders equation, to code them into computer programs, and to use them to organize data, to generalize from data, and to test theories with data. They also learned how to use those models to describe the evolutionary processes along phylogenetic trees, which show the ancestral relationships that hold between species or more general levels of taxa. Finally, the workshop helped connect young researchers interested in similar issues.

The workshop helped Steve as he completes his dissertation project, which is about quantitative genetics models and their more familiar cousins, population genetic models. The workshop provided him an opportunity to better learn how to use and manipulate those models, an opportunity rare at ASU. For his dissertation project, Steve investigates how researchers are incorporating increasingly complex information about molecular genetics into population and quantitative genetic models, and how those more complex models impact fundamental assumptions of evolutionary biology.

To attend the workshop, Steve received an ASU Graduate and Professional Student Association Travel Grant, an ASU Graduate Education Travel Grant, and a CBS Graduate Student Travel Grant. He gratefully acknowledges the support of all three of those grants.