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Ideas Challenge Winners

Macroevolution

Congratulations to our Ideas Challenge winners in the Macroevolution track! These applicants explore novel approaches or frameworks for studying long term directional trends in evolutionary outcomes. Learn more about them and their projects below.

Chris Kempes
The Santa Fe Institute
Our ability to create a universal theory of life that is useful to astrobiology, origins of life, and synthetic biology is within reach. Such a theory rests on our ability to identify universal biological “laws”, which is possible because evolution occurs within the bounds of physical constraints. Advancing this work requires that we create an encyclopedia of the systematic laws that exist for extant life, connect these with mathematical and physical constraints, and distinguish contingent laws from universal ones. 
Thomas Linscott
University of Idaho
Both ancient and recent evolutionary history is replete with examples of shifts in the availability of metabolically limiting resources coinciding with periods of rapid morphological evolution of functionally important traits. This link between environmental conditions and changes in functionally important traits has led many to propose that these factors may be major controllers of morphological evolution and speciation across micro- and macroevolutionary scales. Conversely, it has also been proposed that these factors only regulate trait evolution in a wide bound and are not major determinants of morphological and species diversity. I propose to test these hypotheses by developing new Bayesian models of trait evolution that allow for shifts in evolutionary rates during periods of high resource availability across multiple lineages and applying them to a tractable system with known periods of ecological release, a well-sampled fossil record, and extant species: molluscs endemic to ancient lakes. 
Lauren Sallan
University of Pennsylvania
Adaptive radiations (finches, cichlids) are used a poster children of evolutionThis has raised a paradigm in which evolutionary success is measured by diversification, assumed to be the predictable, net result of opportunities and innovations. In this view, low-diversity lineages with seemingly static forms (‘living fossils’, now a pejorative) are leftovers or misnomers, unrepresentative of significant macroevolutionary processes. Yet, widespread “exceptions to the rule” among living and fossil species suggest that there are distinct, shared, evolutionary pathways leading to ‘living fossils,’ and that persistence is the better metric for evolutionary success 
Beckett Sterner
Arizona State University
Objectively defining and explaining patterns of evolutionary tempo and mode are fundamental problems for paleontology and evolutionary biology, prominent from the Modern Synthesis through punctuated equilibria to present-day research. How might we disentangle the direction and tempo of evolutionary changes over long timescales? State-space modeling (SSM) of these changes in fossil lineages is a potentially transformative key to unlock new modes of empirical detection and causal explanation by enabling multivariate analyses of traits and incorporating environmental time series. An interdisciplinary approach combining Paleobiology, statistics, and philosophy will be key to realizing SSM’s full benefits for macroevolutionary modeling.