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Sudhir Kumar, ASU scientist and co-author of the "Timetree of Life."

ASU scientist nominated for Governor's Innovation Awards

By

Margaret Coulombe

An ASU scientist, who has developed high-impact computer software to help identify the genetic roots of pathogens and launched the field of PhyloMedicine of genetic mutations in humans, has been selected as one of the three finalists for the 2011 Innovator of the Year Award for Academia, part of the Arizona Governor’s Celebration of Innovation.

Sudhir Kumar, a professor in the School of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine & Informatics at ASU's Biodesign Institute, and his research team have pioneered three tools to aid in the large-scale analysis of DNA from humans and much of life on Earth. The first, called MEGA, aids in comparative analysis of DNA of humans and pathogens. The software tool retrieves and analyzes information from public databases, examines relationships of DNA from different sources and animal species, and determines evolutionary relationships and adaptive changes.

A second project of note is the TimeTree Web (http://www.timetree.org/) and smartphone apps. Updated this year by Kumar and his colleagues, the tools track the origin of species, including humans, animals and microbes, across time.  It allows students, scientists, educators and the general public to mine knowledge that is typically locked away in technical and research journals. Using these times, scientists can calibrate the speed at which different parts of the human genome are changing, for example, and establish their functional importance and their likelihood of involvement in disease, says Kumar.

Kumar’s research group has also pioneered investigations of evolutionary characteristics and computational diagnoses of DNA mutations found in thousands of disease genes, showing that evolution can serve as a kind of telescope for exploring the universe of genetic variation. Researchers are able to evaluate the severity of each DNA mutation using computers, which offers the first glimpses into the functional and health consequences of such variations.

“At the intersection of molecular evolution and genomic medicine, this discipline focuses on understanding of human disease and health through the application of long-term molecular evolutionary history,” says Kumar. “Armed with evolutionary genetic anatomies, clinicians can potentially identify genetic variants that are most likely to have consequences for the health or clinical course of treatment for a patient.”

A highly-cited author, the impacts of Kumar and his colleagues’ tools have been broad. There are MEGA users in more than 150 countries, with a largest numbers of users from United States, China, Japan, India, Brazil, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France. Among the industrial organizations, MEGA users include companies that are playing critical roles in pharmaceutical research. In addition, the TimeTree of Life tools have been accessed more than 250,000 times in the last year. Users include students and teachers in K-12 schools, universities research scientists, and the general public. Kumar believes that these tools have significantly aided in genetic study, research, and industry, in addition to the education at the secondary, college, and graduate school levels.

“Around the world, thousands of scientists are studying the evolutionary diversification of life by taking advantage of rapidly expanding DNA genome databases,” said Robert E. Page Jr., vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and founding director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences, an academic unit of the College. “The genomic software developed by Sudhir Kumar has improved not only the fundamental understanding of the process of evolution but also provided key insights into the evolution of beneficial species, for example, crops, and harmful species, such as pathogens and pests.”

The Governor’s Celebration of Innovation has become a premier community gathering in Arizona since 2003. The November 17th banquet will be held at the Phoenix Convention. The winners and finalists were selected by a committee independent of the Council, which included representatives from Science Foundation Arizona; OneNeck IT Services; Arizona Technology Investment Forum; Intel Corporation; Avnet Inc.; ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development and Honeywell Aerospace. The Governor's Innovation Awards, Arizona’s highest honor for technology innovation, is presented by the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Department of Commerce http://www.aztechcouncil.org.