Rice Biologist Wins Beckman Foundation Award
Rice University researcher Nicholas Putnam has received a prestigious three-year Beckman Foundation Young Investigator Award to use comparative genomics to explore questions about evolution and organization of genomic structure.
“The great thing about the Beckman award is that it supplements any other funding we obtain,” said Putnam, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “The foundation doesn’t specify how I have to spend the money, and that could be invaluable because I’d like to establish complementary programs in both bioinformatics and gene sequencing.”
Putnam, who joined Rice’s faculty in July, has co-authored three studies over the past two years describing for the first time similarities between the groupings of many genes on human chromosomes and the groupings of the same genes on the chromosomes of invertebrate species: The sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, the lancelet Branchiostoma floridae, and a flat, disc-shaped creature called Trichoplax adhaerens that has no organs and only about 1,000 cells. The find was surprising, not just because of the stark differences among these animals, but also because the species haven’t shared a common ancestor in more than 650 million years.
“It’s like discovering that the baked goods and condiments are grouped together on one aisle, regardless of the size or type of supermarket you’re in,” Putnam said. “No one expected this, and it raises some interesting questions.”
Putnam’s group hopes to find answers by studying the similarities between genomes as a basis for using computers to reconstruct the organizational structure of ancient genomes. With the information they’ve learned by comparing ancient and modern genome structure they’ll also develop computer models that describe how genomes evolve.
“The model, if it’s accurate, can help you infer the history of genome evolution,” Putnam said. “But you have to make some assumptions when you create a model. I’d like to complement the modeling by testing those assumptions, and one way to do that is by finding ways to observe the process of genome evolution as it is happening within a population.”
There is a good candidate for those tests in the Gulf of Mexico, an organism called the Branchiostoma floridae, or Florida lancelet. Putnam was lead author when the genome was published last year, and the organism is abundant in the Gulf. In addition, variations in the published genome indicate the lancelet could be a useful organism for studying the rates of mutational processes, including those that produce structural variation. Putnam said he hopes his group can soon begin collecting lancelet samples for analysis.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation makes grants to nonprofit research institutions to promote research in chemistry and the life sciences, broadly interpreted, and particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open up new avenues of research in science.