Katie Peichel receives prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship Award

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center geneticist studies variations in body type, behavior between species

Dr. Catherine (Katie) Peichel of the Basic Sciences and Human Biology divisions recently received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship Award for 2013.

Peichel studies the genetic basis of variations in body type and behavior between species. Using the threespine stickleback fish as a model, she investigates how groups of genes work together to influence biological processes such as the origin of new species and mate selection. Her work sheds light on the genetic networks at play in complex traits and diseases in humans.

Dr. Katie Peichel
Dr. Katie Peichel, Basic Sciences and Human Biology divisions Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

Peichel will use the $40,000 Guggenheim fellowship to take a nine-month sabbatical later this year to work in the laboratory of Dr. Walter Salzburger at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

In the past decade, much of the research in the field of evolutionary genetics has been focused on identifying connections between genotype (genetic makeup) and phenotype (observed characteristics, both physical and behavioral). The next frontier in evolutionary biology is to connect specific genotypes and phenotypes to the survival of organisms in the wild.

In the ideal world, according to Peichel, the best approach would be to track survival and all possible phenotypes and genotypes on a genomewide scale, but this has not yet been done in any system. One would measure all possible phenotypes and genotypes within a population at a given time, then later go back to the population and measure the phenotypes and genotypes of the survivors. If a particular phenotype or genotype shows a significant change in the mean value between the starting population and the surviving population, then there is evidence that the phenotype or genotype is under selection in the wild.

Although simple in concept, this approach is difficult in practice because it requires analyzing very large and replicated cohorts of individuals. Despite these challenges, Peichel and colleagues have begun just such an ambitious and novel study using a pair of stickleback fish populations inhabiting Misty Lake and an adjoining stream on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Dr. Andrew Hendry of McGill University has marked and recaptured thousands of sticklebacks to identify individuals that are "survivors" in these populations. In collaboration with the Salzburger Lab in Basel, scientists are sequencing the entire genomes of 1,000 of these sticklebacks (500 from the starting population and 500 from the surviving population) to identify the genotypes under selection in these populations.

Peichel will be analyzing the genome-sequencing data from this pioneering project, which will undoubtedly influence the course of her own research, she said.

"Analyzing this large and novel dataset provides an exciting opportunity for me to update my own training in the analysis of large-scale sequencing data. All of the current projects in my lab involve whole-genome sequencing, and these datasets need to be analyzed with a deep knowledge of the biology of the system," Peichel said. "By acquiring these bioinformatics skills, I will be able to apply my biological insights to the data and will also be able to better train my students and postdoctoral fellows in these crucial skills."

This year's 175 new fellows, selected from a pool of almost 3,000 applicants, represent a diverse group of scientists and artists. Guggenheim fellows are appointed on the basis of distinguished prior achievement and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.

Since 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has granted more than $306 million in fellowships to nearly 17,500 individuals, including scores of Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and eminent scientists.

Other Guggenheim fellows from Fred Hutch include the late Dr. Larry Rohrschneider, a basic scientist honored in 2000.

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