MPS Awardee Spotlight: Olga Zhaxybayeva

Olga Zhaxybayeva,
Dartmouth College

Olga Zhaxybayeva is one of four awardees in the inaugural class of the Simons Investigators in Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems (MMLS) program. Originally from Kazakhstan, she received her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Connecticut and is now an assistant professor of biological sciences and adjunct assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, where she leads the Evolutionary Computational Genomics Laboratory.

Her research in computational genomics uses DNA and protein sequences to study microbial evolution in order to gain an understanding of the evolutionary processes and ultimately, of the origins of life.

“I study how microbes evolve: how they change, how they adapt in different environments. More fundamentally what kinds of forces — evolutionary forces — shape those changes.” Zhaxybayeva creates mathematical models to study how gene transfer occurs and to help fuel experimental research. “A part of this work is theoretical, but I collaborate with molecular geneticists who study the specifics within a lab. They’re very excited because they think that we can work together.”

Figure: “Flux of genes between two genomes and environment,” from W. Ford Doolittle and Olga Zhaxybayeva: “Metagenomics and the units of biological organization,” BioScience, 2010, 60: 102–112.

With the support of her new Simons Foundation grant, her group is studying gene transfer agents (GTAs): virus-like elements that mediate horizontal gene transfer among bacteria. GTAs package chromosomal DNA and transport it to another bacterium. “Acquiring genes that some other organism created in a way is faster than mutation because mutation is a stochastic process.” Her goals are to understand both how this mechanism evolved, and whether it is actually beneficial, through the use of mathematical models. “We do field work, some modeling, some evolutionary inferences based on data and hopefully prediction of modeling parameters that we can take to the experimental system we’re trying to test out.”

As an extension of her scientific work, Zhaxybayeva is eager to collaborate with music composition students, aiming to commission pieces that illustrate the biological processes she studies in her lab, with an eye to explaining complex biological systems to a non-scientific audience. “I’d like to talk to [these students] about specifically GTAs or horizontal gene transfer, and try to inspire them to write music.”