Stanford geneticist wins MacArthur 'genius grant'

- By Krista Conger

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationCarlos Bustamante

Carlos Bustamante, PhD, wants to use his award money to probe more deeply into how genetic evolution affects people, animals, plants and pathogens.

Carlos Bustamante’s son was a little too quick for his dad when the phone rang at 7 a.m. last week: The boy answered it.

“We never answer the phone during breakfast,” said Bustamante, PhD, a professor of genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “But he grabbed it, and then said ‘Oh, it’s for you.’ When I heard the fellow introduce himself as from the MacArthur Foundation, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this can’t be happening.’”

But it was. Bustamante learned that he was among the nation’s newest class of MacArthur Fellows — a prestigious award sometimes known as a “genius grant.” Awardees receive $500,000 over five years to use in whatever ways they see fit. The no-strings-attached grants are meant to stimulate innovation and flexibility in scientists, artists, social activists and others, who were identified by their peers and chosen by the fellowship’s nominating committee. Winners (this year there are 23) don’t know in advance that they’re being considered for the award.

“I was completely dumbfounded and thrilled,” said Bustamante, 35, whose research focuses on understanding the evolution and interactions of population genetics in humans, dogs and even plants and pathogens. “Often our work is on the fringe of what people think is doable, or even reasonable. To me, this award validates the crazy disparateness of the projects in the lab. One minute we’re talking about dogs, then next about humans, and then about Streptococcus. So much of the work that we do is collaborative that I really see this award as recognizing a much larger group effort that involves many friends, mentors, current and past students, and collaborators throughout the world.”

The organisms are different, but many of the projects have the same goal: to analyze and compare DNA within and among groups to identify not just important shared genes and regions (like those that determine body size in dogs and humans), but also how interactions among the groups have affected the evolution of each species.

“Carlos is an innovator in every sense of the word,” said Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics at the medical school. “His analysis of human population genetics is really quite pioneering. He has an incredible ability to grasp important problems and zoom in on the relevant questions. He’s one of the brightest scientists you’ll ever meet, and he’s changing the face of science.”

“We’re looking at these different systems — humans, animals, plants and pathogens — to try to understand how different selection pressures have impacted humans and how humans have impacted other organisms,” said Bustamante. “These are incredibly exciting, interrelated problems. For example, you can imagine that humans, in their search for sustenance, have bred all kinds of quirky characteristics into plants like rice, while dogs have responded to human evolution and selective breeding by developing an incredible array of body sizes and morphology.”

The first step for many of Bustamante’s projects is gathering DNA. Lots and lots of DNA. But it’s typically difficult to get funding for such grunt work. “Our dog genetics work was basically unfunded at first,” he said. “And some of the stuff we’re doing in the Americas  — broadly sampling and phenotyping populations to understand the history of diverse groups that contributed to genomic and phenotypic variation in the Americas — is still well-underfunded.” Much of his early work was funded by a two-year Sloan Fellowship that Bustamante received in 2007. That’s why the MacArthur Award will make such a difference.

“It is a privilege to receive this award and I want to use it to really catalyze many of the projects that we’ve had on the back burner for a while. Of all these projects, what I’m really passionate about is translating what we learn about patterns of genetic variations in these populations into practical applications in the Americas,” said Bustamante. “I am a firm believer that genomics can play a key role in the development plans for developing countries. If we can understand how genetic variation impacts traits in peoples, plants and pathogens as well as the role that diverse evolutionary forces have played, we are closer to realizing the promises of genomics to improve people’s lives. For example, we can accelerate crop development by harnessing natural genetic variation among existing varieties and wild relatives. Likewise, we can identify genes underlying complex traits, such as disease susceptibility and drug response. I also firmly believe that this needs to involve training diverse scientists and giving them the tools to start their own laboratories both here and in their home countries.”

Such forward thinking is nothing new for Bustamante. According to his graduate advisor at Harvard University, Daniel Hartl, PhD, “Carlos has shown extraordinary ability, initiative and accomplishments, and I am delighted to vicariously enjoy his great honor,” said Hartl, the Higgins Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. “He is one of the new generation of researchers who combine evolutionary genetics with genomics, and he has demonstrated the ability to be one of its leading exponents. He is an ideal choice as a MacArthur Fellow.”

Clearly, the selection committee agreed. But they had to have a little early morning fun with their phone call. “There’s another, really famous Carlos J. Bustamante, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Berkeley,” explained Bustamante, whose middle initial is “D.” “When they called that morning to tell me I had won, they asked to read the bio they had written for me over the phone. When they began by saying, ‘Carlos J. Bustamante…’ my heart just sank. But then he laughed, and said, ‘No, just joking.’”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit