Joan E. Strassmann

Washington University in St. Louis

Election Year: 2013
Primary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Secondary Section: 26, Genetics
Membership Type: Member


Joan E. Strassmann is the Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is an evolutionary biologist who works on the evolution of cooperation, particularly in microbes and social insects. She measured genetic relatedness in wasps, and showed kin selection theory predicts the outcome of within-family conflicts of interest. Recent work extends to mutualisms in microbes and organismality. She collaborates with David C. Queller. Strassmann was born in Washington DC in 1953, but grew up largely in East Lansing, Michigan with year-long childhood sojourns in Mexico City, London, and Geneva. She received her BS from The University of Michigan and her PhD from The University of Texas at Austin in 1979. She was on the faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas from 1980 to 2011, where she was the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and department chair. In 2011 she joined the Biology department at Washington University in St. Louis. Strassmann was president of the Animal Behavior Society and writes a popular blog on the intricacies of academia, She is married to David Queller and has three children, Anna, Daniel, and Philip.

Research Interests

Cooperative alliances are a central feature of life, and include multicellular organisms, social insects, mutualisms, and many microbial systems. Using social insects and later social microbes, Strassmann and her long-time collaborator David Queller, have explored how these alliances come to be, what makes them stable, and how conflict is controlled. She pioneered the use of DNA microsatellite markers to get at the intricacies of within-colony genetic relatedness in social wasps and stingless bees and showed that kin selection offered explanations for where cooperation occurs and how conflict is controlled. She then moved on to study altruism in social amoebae and used single gene knockouts, experimental evolution, genomics, and staged interactions to get at the molecular underpinnings of cooperation and to show the importance of genetic relatedness in favoring altruism in this system. Most recently they have discovered symbioses between social amoebae and bacteria in an agricultural mutualism. She is beginning to apply these concepts and techniques to understanding the origins and maintenance of cooperative entities we call organisms and the very nature of organismality.

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