Sarah P. Otto

University of British Columbia

Election Year: 2013
Primary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member


Sarah (Sally) P. Otto. CRC Professor (Tier 1), Department of Zoology & Director, Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia; BSc and PhD Stanford University. Otto is known for her theoretical studies investigating how biological systems evolve, using models to investigate the selective forces acting on genetic systems (recombination, ploidy level, gene duplications) and mating systems (sexual vs asexual reproduction, sexual selection, floral reproductive strategies). In addition to mathematical modeling, Otto's research group carries out phylogenetic analyses, plant evolutionary studies, and yeast experimental evolution, resulting in over 150 publications and a book. Otto 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, and 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. Awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a McDowell Award for Excellence in Research (UBC), a Steacie Fellowship (Natural Sciences and Research Council; Canada), and the Steacie Prize (National Research Council, Canada).

Research Interests

Understanding how evolution has led to the remarkable diversity of life is the key motivating force behind Otto's research. Mathematical models allow her to determine which evolutionary transitions are plausible, which are probable, and which are inaccessible. Otto and her students have developed core evolutionary theory for understanding transitions among modes of reproduction, mating systems, and ploidy levels. For example, sexual reproduction is widespread in nature but the reason has puzzled biologists for over a century. By developing new stochastic methods, Otto has demonstrated that the constraints of evolution acting on a limited number of individuals provide a strong and robust advantage to sexual reproduction, which was not seen in previous deterministic models. Otto and colleagues have also developed likelihood-based approaches to infer how speciation and extinction rates depend on particular traits across phylogenies. To 'ground truth' evolutionary theory, her group performs experiments using different plant systems and the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. For example, her research with yeast has explored how the number of copies of genomes within each cell ("ploidy level") influences adaptation and mutation accumulation. Current research investigates the nature and scope of beneficial mutations acquired in stressful environments and the trade-offs they exhibit to better understand the constraints on evolutionary adaptation.

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