The Walter M. Fitch Award

The Fitch Award honors the best presentation at the Walter M. Fitch symposium, which provides a forum for young investigators to showcase their exemplary research at the annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE).


As the name suggests, this symposium and the associated prize honors Dr. Walter M. Fitch, who was a pioneer in many areas of molecular evolution, in particular the methodology of phylogenetic reconstruction, the estimation of genetic distances, the study of rate constancy in proteins and DNA sequences, the evolution of codon usage, and retroviral evolution. He also made significant contributions to virology, the origin of life, taxonomy, genetics, and molecular biology. For his work, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Linnean Society. With Masatoshi Nei, he co-founded the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, and served as editor-in-chief for its first 10 years. He also co-founded the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution and served as its first president.


Walter Monroe Fitch was born in San Diego, California, on May 21, 1929. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1953 and a Ph.D. in comparative biochemistry in 1958. He was a post-doctoral scholar at both Stanford and University College (London), and held full professorships at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California. He came to University of California, Irvine in 1989 as a Distinguished Professor and later became the Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Walter M. Fitch died on March 11, 2011, at the age of 81.

Past Recipients

Year Name Title
 2017 Anna Vickrey, University of Utah, USA  Domestic pigeon’s checkered past: wing color pattern variation is associated with one gene, two mechanisms, and interspecific introgression
 2016 Katya Kosheleva, Harvard University, USA Weakly selected standing variants dominate adaptation for 1000 generations in sexual, laboratory evolved yeast populations 
 2015 Aline Muyle, Université Lyon 1, Lyon, France. Evolution of dosage compensation in the dioecious plant Silene latifolia
 2014 Alex Cagan, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany  Genetic variants underlying tameness and agression.
2013 Karen Wong Miller, UC Berkeley, USA Genome-Wide Scans Reveal a Young Candidate Speciation Gene in Drosophila athabasca.
2012 Elizabeth Perry, University Of Oregon, USA Repeatability in evolution varies with scale, organism, and the nature of selection.
2011 Kerry Geiler-Samerotte, Harvard University, USA The selective cost of misfolded protein toxicity and a concomitant evolutionary adaptation.
2010 Takashi Tsuchimatsu, University of Zurich, Switzerland Evolution of self-compatibility in Arabidopsis thaliana by a mutation in the male specificity gene.
2009 Joshua Bayes, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, USA The molecular basis of hybrid sterility caused by the hybrid sterility gene Odysseus.
2008 Jean-François Gout, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France Translational control of intron splicing in eukaryotes.
2007 David Des Marais, Duke University, USA Gene duplication allows substrate specialization in a biosynthetic enzyme.
2006 Jennifer Cork, North Carolina State University, USA Characterizing three candidate balanced polymorphisms in Arabidopsis thaliana: a reverse genetics approach.
Joanna Kelley, University of Washington, USA Positive selection in primate tooth enamelin and evidence for human population specific adaptation.
2005 Leslie Collins, Massey University, New Zealand Cutting it in the RNA World: the spliceosome and splicing in ancestral eukaryotes.
2004 Barbara Engelhardt, University of California at Berkeley, USA Protein function prediction using a Bayesian model of molecular function evolution.
2003 Yoav Gilad, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany Loss of olfactory receptor genes is coupled to the acquisition of full trichromatic color vision.
2002 Ying Chen, University of Munich, Germany Functional analysis of phylogenetically conserved sequence elements in intron 1 of the Drosophila melanogaster Adh gene.
2001 Jeffrey Townsend, Harvard University, USA Global gene expression variation in natural isolates of Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
2000 Eric A. Gaucher, University of Florida, USA Functional analysis of proteins using covarion-based evolutionary approaches: elongation factors.
1999 Dennis Lavrov, University of Michigan, USA Arthropod phylogeny based on gene arrangement and other characters from mitochondrial DNA.
1998 Mark Siegal, Harvard University, USA Functional evolutionary analysis of genes coplaced into the Drosophila genome.
1997 Christiane Biermann, State University of New York at Stony Brook, USA Sequence variation in the sea urchin sperm protein BINDIN is generated by recombination and length mutations.
Paul Taylor, University of Leicester, UK Diversity and mutational analyses of the Y-specific mini-satellite, MSY1.
1996 Dmitri A. Petrov, Harvard University, USA Birth and death of processed pseudogenes in Drosophila: Molecular evolution of a non-LTR retrotransposable element.
1995 Hiroki Oota, University of Tokyo, Japan Phylogenetic analysis of 2,000 year old human remains of Japan (Yayoi period) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences.
1994 Alan Cooper, Smithsonian Institution, USA Avian evolution in New Zealand as revealed by mitochondrial DNA.
Janet Kornegay, University of California at Berkeley, USA Molecular adaptation of a leaf-eating bird: stomach lysozyme of the hoatzin.
1993 Youn-Ho Lee, University of California at San Diego, USA The divergence of species-specific abalone sperm lysin is promoted by positive Darwinian selection: implications regarding speciation.

Award Information

Eligibility: Current graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who received their primary doctoral-level degree no earlier than one year prior to the start of the annual meeting of the society. A candidate for the award must become member of the Society at least a month before the first day of the annual meeting.


Application Requirements

  • An abstract (250 word max) for the proposed presentation.
  • A one page expanded summary of the research, including an explanation of the broad significance or importance of the work.
  • A Curriculum Vitae.
Application: Via the abstract submission system for the annual meeting for which the award applies.

Contest: A committee convened by the SMBE Council will choose eight finalists from among the applications. Each selected finalist will present a 15-minute talk in the Walter M. Fitch Symposium at the annual meeting. Based on these presentations, a winner will be chosen by an anonymous expert panel and awarded the Walter M. Fitch Prize (US $2000). All finalists will receive a one-year, online student/postdoc MBE subscription and travel support for attending the meeting (at same rates as other travel awards, see below). 

@OfficialSMBE Feed

MBE | Most Read

Molecular Biology and Evolution

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

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Exploring the Adaptation Extremes of Human High Altitude Sickness and Fitness

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Tibetans, Ethiopians, and Peruvians.

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Species Tree Root Inference from Gene Duplication Events

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

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DNA Sequence Polymorphism Analysis of Large Data Sets

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

1) modules for reading and analyzing data from genomic partitioning methods, such as RADseq or hybrid enrichment approaches, 2) faster methods scalable for high-throughput sequencing data, and 3) summary statistics for the analysis of multi-locus population genetics data. Furthermore, DnaSP 6 includes novel modules to perform single- and multi-locus coalescent simulations under a wide range of demographic scenarios. The DnaSP 6 program, with extensive documentation, is freely available at">">

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

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Mon, 11 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

selective sweeps wherein large shifts in the allele frequencies occur at a few loci and evolution via small changes in the allele frequencies at many loci. Although the first process has been thoroughly investigated within the framework of population genetics, the latter is based on quantitative genetics and is much less understood. Here we summarize results from our recent theoretical studies of a quantitative genetic model of polygenic adaptation that makes explicit reference to population genetics to bridge the gap between the two frameworks. Our key results are that polygenic adaptation may be a rapid process and can proceed via subtle or dramatic changes in the allele frequency depending on the sizes of the phenotypic effects relative to a threshold value. We also discuss how the signals of polygenic selection may be detected in the genome. Although powerful methods are available to identify signatures of selective sweeps at loci controlling quantitative traits, the development of statistical tests for detecting small shifts of allele frequencies at quantitative trait loci is still in its infancy.

Sat, 09 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

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Hidden Genes Uncovered and the Rates versus Traits Paradox in Birds

Tue, 05 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

A Package for Phylogenetic Networks

Mon, 04 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

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Rapid Adaptation in a Polygenic Trait Proceeded Exclusively through Expression Differentiation

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GBE | Most Read

Genome Biology & Evolution

Emergence and Spread of Epidemic Multidrug-Resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa) is one of the most common nosocomial pathogens worldwide. Although the emergence of multidrug-resistant (MDR) P. aeruginosa is a critical problem in medical practice, the key features involved in the emergence and spread of MDR P. aeruginosa remain unknown. This study utilized whole genome sequence (WGS) analyses to define the population structure of 185 P. aeruginosa clinical isolates from several countries. Of these 185 isolates, 136 were categorized into sequence type (ST) 235, one of the most common types worldwide. Phylogenetic analysis showed that these isolates fell within seven subclades. Each subclade harbors characteristic drug resistance genes and a characteristic genetic background confined to a geographic location, suggesting that clonal expansion following antibiotic exposure is the driving force in generating the population structure of MDR P. aeruginosa. WGS analyses also showed that the substitution rate was markedly higher in ST235 MDR P. aeruginosa than in other strains. Notably, almost all ST235 isolates harbor the specific type IV secretion system and very few or none harbor the CRISPR/CAS system. These findings may help explain the mechanism underlying the emergence and spread of ST235 P. aeruginosa as the predominant MDR lineage.

Horizontal Acquisition and Transcriptional Integration of Novel Genes in Mosquito-Associated Spiroplasma

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Genetic differentiation among symbiotic bacteria is important in shaping biodiversity. The genus Spiroplasma contains species occupying diverse niches and is a model system for symbiont evolution. Previous studies have established that two mosquito-associated species have diverged extensively in their carbohydrate metabolism genes despite having a close phylogenetic relationship. Notably, although the commensal Spiroplasma diminutum lacks identifiable pathogenicity factors, the pathogenic Spiroplasma taiwanense was found to have acquired a virulence factor glpO and its associated genes through horizontal transfer. However, it is unclear if these acquired genes have been integrated into the regulatory network. In this study, we inferred the gene content evolution in these bacteria, as well as examined their transcriptomes in response to glucose availability. The results indicated that both species have many more gene acquisitions from the Mycoides-Entomoplasmataceae clade, which contains several important pathogens of ruminants, than previously thought. Moreover, several acquired genes have higher expression levels than the vertically inherited homologs, indicating possible functional replacement. Finally, the virulence factor and its functionally linked genes in S. taiwanense were up-regulated in response to glucose starvation, suggesting that these acquired genes are under expression regulation and the pathogenicity may be a stress response. In summary, although differential gene losses are a major process for symbiont divergence, gene gains are critical in counteracting genome degradation and driving diversification among facultative symbionts.

The Diversity of REcent and Ancient huMan (DREAM): A New Microarray for Genetic Anthropology and Genealogy, Forensics, and Personalized Medicine

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

The human population displays wide variety in demographic history, ancestry, content of DNA derived from hominins or ancient populations, adaptation, traits, copy number variation, drug response, and more. These polymorphisms are of broad interest to population geneticists, forensics investigators, and medical professionals. Historically, much of that knowledge was gained from population survey projects. Although many commercial arrays exist for genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphism genotyping, their design specifications are limited and they do not allow a full exploration of biodiversity. We thereby aimed to design the Diversity of REcent and Ancient huMan (DREAM)—an all-inclusive microarray that would allow both identification of known associations and exploration of standing questions in genetic anthropology, forensics, and personalized medicine. DREAM includes probes to interrogate ancestry informative markers obtained from over 450 human populations, over 200 ancient genomes, and 10 archaic hominins. DREAM can identify 94% and 61% of all known Y and mitochondrial haplogroups, respectively, and was vetted to avoid interrogation of clinically relevant markers. To demonstrate its capabilities, we compared its FST distributions with those of the 1000 Genomes Project and commercial arrays. Although all arrays yielded similarly shaped (inverse J) FST distributions, DREAM’s autosomal and X-chromosomal distributions had the highest mean FST, attesting to its ability to discern subpopulations. DREAM performances are further illustrated in biogeographical, identical by descent, and copy number variation analyses. In summary, with approximately 800,000 markers spanning nearly 2,000 genes, DREAM is a useful tool for genetic anthropology, forensic, and personalized medicine studies.

Structure-Related Differences between Cytochrome Oxidase I Proteins in a Stable Heteroplasmic Mitochondrial System

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Many bivalve species have two types of mitochondrial DNA passed independently through the female line (F genome) and male line (M genome). Here we study the cytochrome oxidase I protein in such bivalve species and provide evidence for differences between the F and M proteins in amino acid property values, particularly relating to hydrophobicity and helicity. The magnitude of these differences varies between different regions of the protein and the change from the ancestor is most marked in the M protein. The observed changes occur in parallel and in the same direction in the different species studied. Two possible causes are considered, first relaxation of purifying selection with drift and second positive selection. These may operate in different ways in different regions of the protein. Many different amino acid substitutions contribute in a small way to the observed variation, but substitutions involving alanine and serine have a quantitatively large effect. Some of these substitutions are potential targets for phosphorylation and some are close to residues of functional importance in the catalytic mechanism. We propose that the observed changes in the F and M proteins might contribute to functional differences between them relating to ATP production and mitochondrial membrane potential with implications for sperm function.

The Novel Evolution of the Sperm Whale Genome

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 00:00:00 GMT

The sperm whale, made famous by Moby Dick, is one of the most fascinating of all ocean-dwelling species given their unique life history, novel physiological adaptations to hunting squid at extreme ocean depths, and their position as one of the earliest branching toothed whales (Odontoceti). We assembled the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) genome and resequenced individuals from multiple ocean basins to identify new candidate genes for adaptation to an aquatic environment and infer demographic history. Genes crucial for skin integrity appeared to be particularly important in both the sperm whale and other cetaceans. We also find sperm whales experienced a steep population decline during the early Pleistocene epoch. These genomic data add new comparative insight into the evolution of whales.