MacArthur Fellows Program

John Novembre

Computational Biologist | Class of 2015

Shedding new light on the links between geography and genomic diversity and producing a more finely grained picture of human evolutionary history.

Computational Biologist
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
37 at time of award
Published September 28, 2015

About John's Work

John Novembre is a computational biologist whose work sheds new light on human evolutionary history, population structure and migration, and the etiology of genetic diseases. He develops novel data visualization and analysis techniques to investigate the correlations among genomic diversity, geography, and demographic structure. In early work, he uncovered vulnerabilities in a classic approach to analyzing the geographic distribution of genetic diversity—principal component analysis (PCA)—and upended a long-standing interpretation of PCA waves as indicators of large-scale migration events. He went on to leverage this finding and, with collaborators, established a strong correlation between shared ancestral geography and genetic similarity among Europeans. This research affirmed the importance of place in determining DNA patterns and showed that it is often possible for ancestry to be pinpointed within a couple hundred miles through genetic sequencing.

Novembre has also developed a new approach for estimating recombination rates using ancestry blocks of admixed populations. Recombination is the fundamental biological process by which genetic material from parents is combined in an individual before being passed to offspring; the recombination rate describes how many recombination events—or points on the genome where the genetic material switches from one parent to another—are happening over time in a group. Novembre and colleagues were able to infer recombination rates across African American genomes (representing a largely West African and European admixture only several hundred years old) by identifying the breakpoints of African and European ancestry. This work has led to a highly detailed genetic map for African Americans, which provides a tool for improving studies of the genetic origins of disease and is inspiring new inquiry into genetic diversity across the globe.

Novembre has also made key insights concerning the impact of natural selection on both positive and negative genetic variants, as well as the link between the population explosion of the last few centuries and the inordinate plethora of rare, deleterious variations in the contemporary genome. Through his unique approach to important biological questions, Novembre is producing a more finely grained picture of human genetic history and differentiating the impact of genetic and nongenetic factors in the features of current populations.


John Novembre received a B.A. (2000) from Colorado College and a Ph.D. (2006) from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to joining the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he is currently an associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics, he was affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles (2008–2013) and was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in bioinformatics at the University of Chicago (2006–2008). His articles have appeared in such journals as Science, Nature, Nature Genetics, the American Journal of Human Genetics, and Bioinformatics, among others.

Select News Coverage of John Novembre
April 20, 2017
"A Map of Human History, Hidden in DNA"
Quanta Magazine
John Novembre, 2015 MacArthur Fellow
November 24, 2016
"What Scientists Are Thankful For This Thanksgiving"
PBS NewsHour
Victoria Orphan, 2016 MacArthur Fellow
William Dichtel, John Novembre, Christopher Ré, 2015 MacArthur Fellows
May 25, 2016
Two Conversation Pairings with MacArthur Fellows
Two pairings, four MacArthur Fellows hosted by The Economic Club of Chicago. These conversations were hosted as part of the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the MacArthur Fellows program.
April 27, 2016
"It’s Official: Kennewick Man is Native American"
The Seattle Times
John Novembre, 2015 MacArthur Fellow
January 11, 2016
MacArthur Announces Performances, Discussion to Celebrate 35 Years of Iconic Fellowship Program
Most of the events will be open to the public for free or at low cost. Video of many events will be made available online.
November 10, 2015
"A MacArthur "Genius Grant" Winner's Brain Boosting Pursuits"
Fast Company
John Novembre, 2015 MacArthur Fellow
View all news

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