Organisms inhabiting high-altitude environments experience physiological stresses due to reduced oxygen availability, low temperatures, and increased UV exposure. Despite these extreme conditions, countless species have adapted to high altitudes. Understanding the mechanisms of this adaptation will improve our overall understanding of molecular evolution and the adaptive response and may aid in the identification of the species or populations most likely to be threatened by the changing environmental conditions caused by global climate change.
Recent advances in genomic sequencing and bioinformatics now permit robust genomic studies of natural, non-model systems that were previously unfeasible. My dissertation research involves two comparative investigations of hypoxia tolerance in animals native to the Andes of South America.
I am currently comparing the genome of a Black-breasted Hillstar (Oreotrochilus melanogaster) hummingbird, which lives at elevations between 3,500 and 4,500 meters, to the low elevation Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) to identify positively selected genes relating to high-elevation adaptation.
I also plan to use genomic sequencing to examine high-elevation adaptation in wild guinea pigs. We currently have samples from three sets of sister species of wild guinea pigs, each with a high-elevation and a low-elevation member. These pairs represent three independent low-to-high divergence events in closely related species. The genome of the domestic guinea pig is already sequenced and will aid in the assembly of these six genomes. Once the genomes are complete, I will search for genes that have undergone selection in all three high-elevation species.