University of Rochester

Biologist Wins Guggenheim Award for Researching Family Trees

May 2, 2002

John Huelsenbeck, associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester, has been named a 2002 Guggenheim Fellow for his work deciphering species' genealogies based on their genetic information. The fellowships are awarded to men and women who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.

"I feel very honored to be chosen as a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and plan to use the support for research and writing time on a book about the field of phylogenetic analysis," says Huelsenbeck.

Huelsenbeck works in phyogenetics, a field that attempts to discern the relationships between different species based on their genetic makeup. The work is incredibly complex, demanding powerful computers and new mathematical techniques that Huelsenbeck has devised to help judge how far in the past a number of species branched away from one another on the evolutionary tree. The job is complicated by the fact that each species brought into the equation raises the number of possible family trees exponentially; four species have a maximum of 15 possible trees, but 50 species have more possible family trees than there are atoms in the universe.

As Huelsenbeck points out, only one of those trees can be correct, and there may be as many as 30 million species on the planet.

"The existence of a common history explains why we can study a disease in a mouse and learn about the disease in humans," says Huelsenbeck. "The nuts-and-bolts of organisms can be remarkably similar because of this shared history."

Huelsenbeck will use the award to continue a book he is now working on that covers the advances in phyogenetics over the past decade, looking specifically at how genealogies can be estimated and used for practical purposes, such as tracing the spread of an infectious disease. It will also cover some of the more esoteric purposes behind the study of molecular evolution and evolutionary biology.

Guggenheim fellows are appointed on the basis of unusually distinguished achievement in the past, and exceptional promise for future accomplishments. The 2002 fellowship winners include 184 artists, scholars and scientists selected from over 2,800 applicants for awards totaling $6,750,000.