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Seven awards given in inaugural Evolutionary Studies Initiative pilot grant program

Posted by on Monday, January 24, 2022 in featured.

By Andy Flick, Evolutionary Studies Initiative scientific coordinator

The Evolutionary Studies Initiative (ESI) has awarded seven grants to researchers in the initiative. These grants will seed new projects and collaborations. We highlight a quick snapshot of the variable and exciting projects below – with full stories on three individual projects forthcoming.

ESI director, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences Antonis Rokas, is especially excited to get these projects off the ground. “The ESI is delighted to offer these pilot grants and sees this investment as a great opportunity to help members of our initiative form strong and lasting interdisciplinary collaborations across campus or explore new areas of research. We look forward to the awesome outcomes of these seven funded projects,” said Rokas.

The labs of assistant professors Megan Behringer and Benjamin Bratton will study the response of experimentally evolved Escherichia coli to starvation. The pair use a technique called single-cell phenotyping, which allows for a greater understanding of evolution caused by microhabitats. For instance, E. coli cells in environments with slightly different pH concentrations can show a range of responses (phenotype) – even though they started genetically identical (genotype). Full pilot grant story coming soon.

Assistant professor Nicole Creanza will work with associate professor Jada Benn Torres to study creole word lists along with unique pronunciations and how they relate to African ancestry of populations in the Caribbean. Much of the data have already been collected, so analyzing those data and publishing the results are top priorities. Check out Creanza’s work on sexual selection of song birds here.

Assistant professor Maulik Patel will use Caenorhabditis elegans to study the tradeoff between maintenance and reproduction. Patel’s lab will investigate which environmental conditions and life-history traits activate the molecule that determines whether C. elegans uses energy for maintenance or reproduction. Full pilot grant story here.

Assistant professor Larissa DeSantis will lead a team of students up to the Smithsonian Institute to partake in collections-based research on crabeater and leopard seals. Her research focuses on the diets of animals long extinct. Check out her story about the diets of polar bears over hundreds of thousands of years here.

Research assistant professor Rachel Racicot will use advanced software to study the biosonar apparatus of toothed whales. This software will allow Racicot’s lab to will digitally extract the space containing the bony labyrinth, which informs on the cochlear structure. Check out a recent story covering her work review of the evolution of whale ears here.

Assistant professor Ann Tate’s lab will use the funds to study optimal immune responses in flour beetles (Tribolium castaneum). They will study how the immune system responds when regulatory molecules that control immunity are switched off. Check out a story with Tate, Patel, and graduate student Bryan Gitschlag studying mitochondria here.

The sole graduate student awardee, Audrey Arner, will spearhead a group studying evolutionary mismatch, specifically looking at how the Semang – an indigenous people of Malaysia – may be experiencing a mismatch in the environment they recently emigrated from (rural areas) to the new environment some currently occupy (urban areas). This work will be in conjunction with anthropologists, physicians, and research technicians. Full pilot grant story coming soon.