Molecular Anthropology Group

at the University of Oregon

Kirstin N. Sterner

Assistant Professor - Department of Anthropology
Associated Faculty - Institute of Ecology and Evolution
Associated Faculty - Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences

Office: 352 Condon Hall
Office Phone: 541-346-8614

Lab Office: 346 CMER
Lab Office Phone: 541-346-8877

Laboratory: 305 CMER
Lab Phone: 541-346-8879


Areas of Specialization
molecular anthropology; primate evolutionary genomics; human brain evolution; genotype-phenotype connections; primate adaptation; ancestral gene resurrection; innate immunity; simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV); epigenetics; aging and aging-related diseases


Postdoctoral Fellowship, Center for Molecular Medicine & Genetics at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine (2009 – 2011)
Ph.D. Department of Anthropology, New York University (2009)

Research Interests
The primary focus of my research is to understand the genetic basis of distinctive human traits. My research group uses a combination of comparative genomics and molecular biology to connect primate genotypes to adaptive phenotypes in order to address larger questions about primate evolution, biology, health and disease. We have ongoing research projects investigating primate innate immunity, adaptation to viral infection, human brain evolution, and aging.

Evolution of Primate Immune Responses: The innate immune system is an organism’s first line of defense against invading pathogens and helps shape longer-term responses (i.e., adaptive immune responses). Our research on the evolution of this system provides an evolutionary framework for understanding why humans (or groups of humans) are more susceptible to certain pathogens than other primates. For example, we use evolutionary and functional genomics to examine how the genomes of some primates are better adapted to co-exist with SIV by down-regulating innate immune responses during the chronic phase of infection when humans typically develop AIDS. I recently co-authored a review that discusses how innate immune responses vary across primates and how this may influence species-specific responses to pathogen-induced diseases (Brinkworth & Sterner 2013 in Primates, Pathogens and Evolution)

Human Brain Development and Evolution: My research also focuses on human brain evolution and the molecular underpinnings of human brain development. More specifically, I am interested in how gene expression changes during brain development and how patterns of gene expression vary across primates. My colleagues and I have found there is greater variability in the expression of a number of genes in the human brain during childhood, potentially reflecting a developmental period when neurological memory is being established and the brain is more plastic (Sterner et al., 2012 PLoS One). Interestingly, our study also showed that genes typically thought of as ‘immune-related’ (and therefore only expressed in the blood or in the brain during disease) are actually expressed in normal brain tissue. This finding adds to growing evidence that some ‘immune-related’ proteins actually play important roles in normal brain development and plasticity. We also identified 39 genes that have significant age-related patterns of gene expression during childhood, many of which are novel candidates in brain development and may play roles in neurological and behavioral disorders (Sterner et al., 2013 American Journal of Human Biology).

Genetics of Aging and Age-Related Diseases: We recently joined the World Health Organization’s Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health (SAGE) project. Our role in this project is to advise on DNA collection methods and develop genetic markers for aging and age-related diseases (e.g., telomere length, SNPs, DNA methylation profiles). We are specifically interested in using this dataset to better understand those factors (lifestyle, environmental, genetic) that influence rate of aging. For more information about the SAGE project please visit our website (

Courses and Teaching Schedule
As a molecular anthropologist my courses use the principles of evolutionary theory and molecular genetics to examine the biology and history of the human species. I teach the following courses at the UO: Molecular Me FIG (ANTH 199), Introduction to Molecular Anthropology (ANTH 199), Introduction to Biological Anthropology (ANTH 270), Genomes & Anthropology (ANTH 376), Advanced Evolutionary Medicine (ANTH 459/559), Evolutionary Theory (ANTH 468/568), Bioanthropology Methods (ANTH 487/587), and Graduate Seminar in Molecular Anthropology (ANTH 610).

Winter 2015
Introduction to Biological Anthropology (ANTH 270)
Advanced Evolutionary Medicine (ANTH 459/559)

Spring 2015
Bioanthropology Methods (ANTH 487/587)