Joanna Masel
Member of the Graduate Faculty
Professor, Applied Mathematics - GIDP
Professor, BIO5 Institute
Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Professor, Genetics - GIDP
Professor, Psychology
Professor, Statistics-GIDP
Primary Department
(520) 626-9888
Research Interest
Joanna Masel, D.Phil., is a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, applying the tools of theoretical population genetics to diverse research problems. Her research program is divided between analytical theory, evolutionary simulations, and dry lab empirical bioinformatic work. The robustness and evolvability of living systems are major themes in her work, including questions about the origins of novelty, eg at the level of new protein-coding sequences arising during evolution from "junk" DNA. She also has interests in prion biology, and in the nature of both biological and economic competitions. She has won many awards, including a Fellowship at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, a Pew Scholarship in the Biomedical Sciences, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a Rhodes Scholarship, and a Bronze Medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad.


Andreatta, M. E., Levine, J. A., Foy, S. G., Guzman, L. D., Kosinski, L. J., Cordes, M. H., & Masel, J. (2015). The Recent De Novo Origin of Protein C-Termini. Genome biology and evolution, 7(6), 1686-701.
BIO5 Collaborators
Matthew Hj Cordes, Joanna Masel

Protein-coding sequences can arise either from duplication and divergence of existing sequences, or de novo from noncoding DNA. Unfortunately, recently evolved de novo genes can be hard to distinguish from false positives, making their study difficult. Here, we study a more tractable version of the process of conversion of noncoding sequence into coding: the co-option of short segments of noncoding sequence into the C-termini of existing proteins via the loss of a stop codon. Because we study recent additions to potentially old genes, we are able to apply a variety of stringent quality filters to our annotations of what is a true protein-coding gene, discarding the putative proteins of unknown function that are typical of recent fully de novo genes. We identify 54 examples of C-terminal extensions in Saccharomyces and 28 in Drosophila, all of them recent enough to still be polymorphic. We find one putative gene fusion that turns out, on close inspection, to be the product of replicated assembly errors, further highlighting the issue of false positives in the study of rare events. Four of the Saccharomyces C-terminal extensions (to ADH1, ARP8, TPM2, and PIS1) that survived our quality filters are predicted to lead to significant modification of a protein domain structure.

Hazelton, N. W., Bennett, L. M., & Masel, J. (1992). Topological structures for 4-dimensional geographic information systems. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 16(3), 227-237.


The purpose of this paper is to extend the framework for binary topological interactions to spaces up to 4-D. It includes descriptions of the various interactions between objects of various dimensions in various spaces, covering all interactions between all types of objects up to 4-D, in spaces up to 4-D. The need for topology in GIS is briefly discussed, in the instance of a vector-based 4-D GIS. The requirements for spatio-temporal indexing of data in a 4-D GIS are discussed briefly, together with the current dearth of information on query types and temporal analysis needs. This absence limits how well system designers can optimize the indexing, and consequently performance, of a 4-D GIS. This information will become available only after systems are in regular use and their modes of use analyzed. © 1992.

Masel, J. (2004). Genetic assimilation can occur in the absence of selection for the assimilating phenotype, suggesting a role for the canalization heuristic. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 17(5), 1106-1110.

PMID: 15312082;Abstract:

Genetic assimilation occurs when an acquired trait loses dependency on its environmental trigger and becomes an inherited trait. According to the standard quantitative genetic model for genetic assimilation, the trait is determined by the contributions of multiple genes. Trait expression occurs at a lower threshold with the trigger. Selection for the trait in the presence of the trigger increases the frequency of the trait-determining alleles. Eventually these alleles become frequent enough to breach the higher threshold for expression in the absence of the trigger. This loss of dependence on the trigger signifies genetic assimilation. Here I show that genetic assimilation can occur in the absence of selection for the trait in an evolutionary simulation of a gene network model. This contradicts the prediction of the standard quantitative genetic model, but is consistent with an explanation in terms of the canalization heuristic.

Wilson, B. A., & Masel, J. (2011). Putatively noncoding transcripts show extensive association with ribosomes. Genome Biology and Evolution, 3(1), 1245-1252.

PMID: 21948395;PMCID: PMC3209793;Abstract:

There have been recent surprising reports that whole genes can evolve de novo from noncoding sequences. This would be extraordinary if the noncoding sequences were random with respect to amino acid identity. However, if the noncoding sequences were previously translated at low rates, with the most strongly deleterious cryptic polypeptides purged by selection, then de novo gene origination would be more plausible. Here we analyze Saccharomyces cerevisiae data on noncoding transcripts found in association with ribosomes. We find many such transcripts. Although their average ribosomal densities are lower than those of protein-coding genes, a significant proportion of noncoding transcripts nevertheless have ribosomal densities comparable to those of coding genes. Most show increased ribosomal association in response to starvation, as has been previously reported for other noncoding sequences such as untranslated regions and introns. In rich media, ribosomal association is correlated with start codons but is not usually consistent and contiguous beyond that, suggesting that translation occurs only at low rates. One transcript contains a 28-codon open reading frame, which we name RDT1, which shows evidence of translation, and may be a new protein-coding gene that originated de novo from noncoding sequence. But the bulk of the ribosomal association cannot be attributed to unannotated protein-coding genes. Our primary finding of extensive ribosome association shows that a necessary precondition for selective purging is met, making de novo gene evolution more plausible. Our analysis is also proof of principle of the utility of ribosomal profiling data for the purpose of gene annotation. © The Author(s) 2010.

Masel, J., & Bergman, A. (2003). The evolution of the evolvability properties of the yeast prion [PSI+]. Evolution, 57(7), 1498-1512.

PMID: 12940355;Abstract:

Saccharomyces cerevisiae's ability to form the prion [PSI+] may increase the rate of evolvability, defined as the rate of appearance of heritable and potentially adaptive phenotypic variants. The increase in evolvability occurs when the appearance of the prion causes read-through translation and reveals hidden variation in untranslated regions. Eventually the portion of the phenotypic variation that is adaptive loses its dependence on the revealing mechanism. The mechanism is reversible, so the restoration of normal translation termination conceals the revealed deleterious variation, leaving the yeast without a permanent handicap. Given that the ability to form [PSI+] is known to be fixed and conserved in yeast, we construct a mathematical model to calculate whether this ability is more likely to have become fixed due to chance alone or due to its evolvability characteristics. We find that evolvability is a more likely explanation, as long as environmental change makes partial read-through of stop codons adaptive at a frequency of at least once every million years.