Homology — the biological term to describe a similar trait shared by different species that are derived from a common ancestor — is a divisive subject in ecology and evolutionary biology professor Günter Wagner’s field. Wagner took a risk when he decided to dedicate five years of his professional life to writing a book about the nature of homology. But the risked paid off: Wagner won the National Academy of Sciences’ 2018 Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal for his 2014 book “Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation.”
“It’s extremely gratifying to have some kind of recognition for my risk taking,” Wagner said.
Last awarded in 2012, the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal recognizes “a most meritorious, recently published work in zoology or paleontology.” The award, whose past recipients include renowned evolutionary biologists and ecologists like Ernst Mayer and G. Evelyn Hutchinson, receives a medal and $20,000 prize.
The book is structured as a lengthy argument in the fashion of Charles Darwin’s seminal book “On the Origins of Species” and proposes that homology can be explained through the persistence of “character identity networks,” which serve as a means to enable groups of regulatory genes to produce varying physical traits across species.
Wagner’s book applies character identity networks to specific biological systems, providing an explanation for the development of novel traits.
Andre Levchenko, director of West Campus’ Systems Biology Institute where Wagner’s lab is located, said Wagner has played a leading role in synthesizing the field of evolutionary development with the study of gene networks.
“Any type of synthesis like that in any science usually brings about a lot of new concepts, new developments, and I think Gunter’s recognition is reflective of the role he’s played in that,” Levchenko said.
Wagner moved his lab to West Campus in 2010, becoming the first faculty member to have a lab there. According to Vice President for West Campus Planning & Program Development Scott Strobel, Wagner is a “key senior faculty member on the campus,” laying the foundations for the Systems Biology Institute and playing an important role in the recruitment of junior faculty. Levchenko added that Wagner “helped shape” the multidisciplinary community of West Campus.
For example, West Campus’ Systems Biology and Cancer Biology institutes are currently working to try to better understand the nature of invasive cancers. As part of the collaboration, Wagner is using his knowledge of evolutionary genetics to explore why melanoma, a skin cancer, is a chronic, nonmalignant condition for some mammals, while it can be deadly for other mammals, including humans.
Stephen Stearns, another professor in the Evolutionary Biology and Ecology Department, praised Wagner’s “very creative and courageous intellect,” as well as his ability to tackle big questions.
“Gunter has an unusually broad intellect. He’s very good at developmental biology, he’s very good at quantitative genetics, he’s very good at evolutionary theory and he’s also interested in the philosophy of science,” Stearns said. “There aren’t very many people who have quite that breadth.”
West Campus, a former Bayer Pharmaceutical campus that has more than 1.6 million square feet of workspace, was acquired in 2007.
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