Genetics of Complex Traits

A Model for Complex Traits

The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, is a tiny free-living worm that contains fewer than 1,000 cells yet its genome harbors nearly as many genes as humans.  These attributes make C. elegans a superb model organism in the Andersen laboratory where they investigate complex traits such as growth rate, muscle activity, and drug resistance.  Indeed, the ability of worms to acquire resistance to drugs is a major biomedical problem because parasitic worms infect hundreds of millions of people world-wide, causing increased susceptibility to a wide variety of infectious diseases.

Robots, Genomics, and Computers: Some Assembly Required

Drug resistance in parasitic worms is a complex trait; it is affected both by different forms (alleles) of a gene and by combinations of different genes.  To understand this trait at the molecular level, Andersen employs state-of-the-art robotics and computational platforms to identify specific genes among different worm populations and to quantify their roles in drug resistance.  One outcome of this new knowledge may be to enhance the discovery of drugs that target the genetic weaknesses common to all parasites and thus improve the effectiveness of drug therapies.

Off to a Great Start!

The excitement surrounding this research has led to the rapid development of Andersen’s laboratory.  Although he has only been at Northwestern University for a little more than a year, his lab already boasts research personnel at all levels – from research scientists, to post docs, to graduate students and undergraduates – even a couple of high school students have joined the team.  Yet, there is room for a few more.  Northwestern University undergraduates interested in pursuing for-credit research in quantitative genetics and genomics can contact Erik at

A Pew Scholar

The excitement surrounding Andersen’s research has also led to national recognition of this young investigator.  One of the new faculty members in the Molecular Biosciences Department, Andersen has been named a PEW Scholar by the PEW Charitable Trusts.  Chosen for his proven creativity and innovation, Andersen is one of only 20 young investigators to be awarded this honor in 2014.  He will receive grants of $60,000/year for each of the next four years to pursue his research on the molecular analysis of complex traits.