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Researcher Mixes Math and Yeast to Study How Organisms Evolve
Sarah (Sally) Otto is a MacArthur "genius" award winner who uses models and yeast to improve our understanding of the evolutionary process.
Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Sarah (Sally) Otto is an evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She studies the evolutionary process through mathematical modeling and the use of model organisms like yeast.

Evolution is shaped by changes to the genetic composition of a population in response to interactions with other species and the physical environment. The complexity of this process can lead to outcomes that are impossible to predict without the guidance of mathematics. In addition, Sally's research group uses yeast to track evolutionary change, both to test theoretical predictions and to spur theory on in new directions.

Her research has two main themes. The first is the study of the evolution of how organisms use their genes. Some mix and match their gene sets when they reproduce, some undergo changes that multiply their entire genome, while some make multiple copies of a single gene. This is also intimately entwined with Otto's second thematic focus: The evolution of different mating systems (sexual versus asexual reproduction, how organisms choose who to mate with, and the strange ways some plants reproduce), which she has explored in over 120 publications and a book.

Sally has served as founding member and secretary of the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution, vice president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, the European Society of Evolutionary Biology, council member for the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Genetic Association, and member of several editorial boards.

She's been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a McDowell Award for Excellence in Research, a Steacie Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Research Council in Canada, and the Steacie Prize from the National Research Council, also in Canada.

Name: Sarah (Sally) Otto
Age: 44
Institution: University of British Columbia
Field of Study: Evolutionary Biology

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.