Joanna Masel

Joanna Masel

Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Professor, Genetics - GIDP
Professor, Statistics-GIDP
Professor, Applied Mathematics - GIDP
Professor, Psychology
Member of the Graduate Faculty
Professor, BIO5 Institute
Primary Department
(520) 626-9888

Research Interest

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.

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.

Masel, J., & Jansen, V. A. (2000). Designing drugs to stop the formation of prion aggregates and other amyloids. Biophysical Chemistry, 88(1-3), 47-59.

PMID: 11152275;Abstract:

Amyloid protein aggregates are implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and the prion diseases. Therapeutics to block amyloid formation are often tested in vitro, but it is not clear how to extrapolate from these experiments to a clinical setting, where the effective drug dose may be much lower. Here we address this question using a theoretical kinetic model to calculate the growth rate of protein aggregates as a function of the dose of each of three categories of drug. We find that therapeutics which block the growing ends of amyloids are the most promising, as alternative strategies may be ineffective or even accelerate amyloid formation at low drug concentrations. Our mathematical model can be used to identify and optimise an end-blocking drug in vitro. Our model also suggests an alternative explanation for data previously thought to prove the existence of an entity known as protein X. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.

Masel, J., Genoud, N., & Aguzzi, A. (2005). Efficient inhibition of prion replication by PrP-Fc 2 suggests that the prion is a PrP Sc oligomer. Journal of Molecular Biology, 345(5), 1243-1251.

PMID: 15644218;Abstract:

Soluble dimeric prion protein (PrP-Fc 2) binds to the disease-associated prion protein PrP Sc, and inhibits prion replication when expressed in transgenic mice. Prion inhibition is effective even if PrP-Fc 2 is expressed at low levels, suggesting that its affinity for PrP Sc is higher than that of monomeric PrP C. Here, we model prion accumulation as an exponential replication cycle of prion elongation and breakage. The exponential growth rate corresponding to this cycle is reflected in the incubation period of the disease. We use a mathematical model to calculate the exponential growth rate, and fit the model to in vivo data on prion incubation times corresponding to different levels of PrP C and PrP-Fc 2. We find an excellent fit of the model to the data. Surprisingly, targeting of PrP Sc can be effective at concentrations of PrP-Fc 2 lower than that of PrP C, even if PrP-Fc 2 and PrP C have the same affinity for PrP Sc. The best fit of our model to data predicts that the replicative prion consists of PrP Sc oligomers with a mean size of four to 15 units. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Maughan, H., Masel, J., Birky Jr., C. W., & Nicholson, W. L. (2007). The roles of mutation accumulation and selection in loss of sporulation in experimental populations of Bacillus subtilis. Genetics, 177(2), 937-948.

PMID: 17720926;PMCID: PMC2034656;Abstract:

Phenotypic loss is an important evolutionary force in nature but the mechanism(s) responsible for loss remains unclear. We used both simulation and multiple-regression approaches to analyze data on the loss of sporulation, a complex bacterial developmental process, during experimental evolution of Bacillus subtilis. Neutral processes of mutational degradation alone were sufficient to explain loss-of-sporulation ability in four of five populations, while evidence that selection facilitated mutational loss was found for only one population. These results are discussed in the context of the evolution of sporulation in particular and phenotypic loss in general. Copyright © 2007 by the Genetics Society of America.