How did there come to be so many species in the world? This is the question that eventually led Darwin to his theory of evolution, and yet it remains the central unanswered question in biology. To solve this mystery, Dr. Rees Kassen, a researcher with the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biology, is using a novel approach to explore the fundamentals of genetics and evolution.
Dr. Kassen’s pioneering research uses populations of microbes to test theories of evolution and adaptation. The simple biology and short life span of microbes allows him and his team to monitor adaptive processes in a way that is impossible with more complex species. The goal is to develop a theory of adaptation that predicts the outcomes of genetic mutations.
Dr. Kassen’s team is developing methods to identify beneficial mutations and their correlative effects on the fitness of microbes. A second study attempts to discern the predictability of adaptive evolution at the molecular level. To achieve this, Dr. Kassen is using DNA sequencing technology to identify the changes that occur to genomes that cause an increase of fitness.
This research will provide insight into the fundamental processes of adaptation and diversification, but also has strong implications for more direct questions, such as how an organism will respond to climate change. It will also help to answer questions in medicine about how viral strains can develop resistance to antibiotics and how diseases evolve. With a complete predictive theory, Dr. Kassen’s research will help others analyze emerging diseases to determine how they will mutate and what steps must be taken in order to contain them.