University of Rochester

$5 Million Grant Awarded to Answer Biology's Biggest Secrets

September 24, 2003

Part of a new effort by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to understand some of the most perplexing puzzles in biology is being spearheaded at the University of Rochester. Jack Werren, professor of biology, is leading a group of researchers at six different institutions who will investigate Wolbachia, bacteria that are found in more than 20 percent of insect species. Wolbachia manipulate insect reproduction and cellular biology, and could have major influences on insect genetics and evolution. The five-year, $5 million effort will determine how these bacteria alter cell biology and reproduction in their hosts, how they move around between insect species, and how they have impacted the genome structure of insects. These studies could provide new tools for insect control, as well as fundamental insights about how animals co-exist with their bacterial parasites.

In 2001, Werren showed that by interfering with fertilization between wasps infected with different Wolbachia, these bacteria may have altered the regular course of the wasp's evolution, leading to the formation of two separate species.

One of the hallmarks of NSF's new Frontier In Biology Research (FIBR) program is its emphasis on cooperation among different arenas of research. Werren's study will include Mitsunori Ogihara from the University's Department of Computer Science, John Jaenike, professor of biology, and researchers from the University of California, Riverside; University of California, Santa Cruz; the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; the American Museum of National History; the Marine Biological Laboratory; and the Institute for Genomic Research.

Other projects funded by the $30 million FIBR program include studies of how multicellular organisms arise by using primitive multicellular slime molds. Another, exploring how ecology and molecular genetics interact in the creation of new species, will focus on Mimulus, a genus more commonly known as monkey-flowers. One will examine the causes and consequences of genetic recombination in reproduction--or, succinctly, "Why sex?"--by tracking the consequences of sexual and asexual reproduction in Daphnia, tiny freshwater crustaceans also known as water fleas. Each organism, be it Wolbachia, slime molds, monkey-flowers or water fleas, has special features that make it uniquely suited for asking a fundamental biological question. Each study takes a multidisciplinary approach to its particular question.

"An important feature of biology in the 21st century is the opportunity to set aside barriers and tackle some of the most important and fundamental questions in biology," says Mary Clutter, NSF's assistant director for biology. "FIBR is one of the ways we're supporting researchers who are moving the frontiers forward and who are training a new generation of scientists who will not be limited by disciplinary boundaries."