Welcome new 2012-2013 faculty

06/13/13

The Department of Evolution and Ecology welcomed two new colleagues in 2012-13: Professor Johanna Schmitt, an expert on plant adaptation to environmental change, and Assistant Professor Susan Lott, who examines the interplay between developmental robustness and evolution.

Schmitt and Lott join one of the premier evolution and ecology programs in the nation. “We are really excited about both of them being here. Together they make a department that was already amazing even more so,” Dean James E. K. Hildreth said. A fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, Schmitt’s research focuses on the genetic basis and adaptive evolution of plant life history traits in different environments. Her recent publications include a model she co-developed to predict Arabidopsis thaliana flowering times using climate information such as day length and hourly temperature.

“Davis was really my dream job,” Schmitt said, who moved here from Brown University. “EVE is a marvelous department and my interests are the intersection of evolution, ecology, plant biology and environmental science. All of those are really strong here.”

In addition, Schmitt mentioned being wooed here by the abundance of colleagues who work on evolutionary genomics and natural variation in Arabidopsis, the “extraordinary” caliber of Davis graduate students, and the University of California’s natural reserve lands, which offer many ideal locations for field work.

“The UC natural reserve system is pretty remarkable,” Schmitt said, “Adaptive evolution and phenology in response to climate change is something that I can study really well here.” Schmitt and her team are now gearing up to begin RNA sequencing work to analyze genetic variation in Arabidopsis flowering time pathways, and how those pathways function in different seasons and climates.

Having done her dissertation at Stanford on California grassland species, she also is looking forward to expanding her research with other California plant species.

“I’m having a lot of fun living in California again,” Schmitt said. “My husband and I love the outdoors, love the farmers market. And we just discovered there’s a plum tree in our backyard; it was so great to bring a bag of plums to the department.”

A surplus of fruit is something Lott is also enjoying, and adjusting to, here in Davis. “It’s wonderful having fruit trees and citrus year-round, but right now I have more fruit than I can deal with!” she joked.

Lott might complain about an overabundance of fruit, but fruit flies are a different story. She studies the evolution of development using Drosophila, examining how genetic variation within and between species impacts the flies’ developmental robustness—from fertilization through larval, pupal and adult stages—and interacts with the evolutionary process.

“Various developmental processes are really robust and end in the same outcome—for instance, a healthy animal with one head and not two—despite being grown in different temperatures or having different genetic backgrounds,” Lott said. “It turns out there are all these processes that limit variation on the animal that actually develops in order to get a more robust egg.”

Those processes are key to understanding evolution because they are countervailing forces that provide a challenge to the ability of the organism to evolve.

“If organisms are making the same thing every time as a result of developmental robustness, how is there any variation for natural selection to act on?” Lott asked.

Lott’s lab is investigating this tension in several ways, including studying variation in the X-chromosome dose between male and female fruit flies; using RNA sequencing to analyze how maternally deposited RNA in the egg affects developmental processes and phenotypes; and parsing out the genetic basis for variation among Drosophila body shapes and sizes.

A liberal-arts graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Lott took a circuitous route to a career in genetics research. “I was doing writing and literature and theater in college, but I happened to have an advisor my first year who said, ‘take a class you don’t think you’ll enjoy because we’re all about progressive education here, so you’ll probably like it,’” Lott said. “So I decided to take an introductory level genetics course and I got really into it.”

Eventually, that intro course led to graduate school in genetics at the University of Chicago, then a post-doctoral research position at UC Berkeley before joining the EVE department at Davis.