Evolutionary Biologist Craig Albertson Identifies Non-genetic Source of Species Variability

An unspoken frustration for evolutionary biologists over the past 100 years, says Craig Albertson at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is that genetics can only account for a small percentage of variation in the physical traits of organisms. Now he reports experimental results on how another factor, a “bizarre behavior” that is part of early cichlid fish larvae’s developmental environment, influences later variation in their craniofacial bones.

Albertson has studied African cichlid fish for 20 years as a model system for exploring how biodiversity originates and is maintained, with a focus on genetic contributions to species differences. In a new series of experiments with former Ph.D. student Yinan Hu, now a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College, they examined a “vigorous gaping” behavior in larval fish that starts immediately after the cartilaginous lower jaw forms and before bone deposition begins. Results appear in the current early online issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

As Albertson explains, “We predicted that the baby fish are exercising their jaw muscles, which should impose forces on the bones they attach to, forces that might stimulate bone formation.” Albertson and Hu observed that gaping frequency, which could reach as high as 200 per minute, varied by species “in a way that foreshadows differences in bone deposition around processes critical for the action of jaw opening.”

Read more in the Royal Society Publishing article

Eco-Physiologist Alexander Gerson Receives $756,000 NSF Grant to Study How Birds Burn Stored Fat

Migrating birds complete long non-stop flights of many hours for songbirds and days for some shorebirds to reach breeding or wintering grounds. During such flights a bird's metabolic rate is very high, fueled by stored fat, but also by burning the protein in muscles and organs in a process that is not well understood, says eco-physiologist Alexander Gerson at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Now he has received a three-year, $756,000 National Science Foundation grant to thoroughly investigate the consequences and mechanisms of this phenomenon, which sometimes leads to dramatic reductions in migrating birds' muscle mass and organs but may not result in significant loss of function.

His research team will also look at water-loss rates in non-flight conditions, at rest, and look for differences among migrants and non-migrants. Further, Gerson and colleagues will conduct metabolic phenotyping and use transcriptomics to explore molecular mechanisms of protein breakdown and regeneration with UMass Amherst molecular biologists Courtney Babbitt and Larry Schwartz.

Read more in EurekAlert! article

Bartlett Receives $837,000 NSF Grant For Her Research in Unlocking the Genetic Secrets of Flower Diversity


A biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is hoping to unlock the genetic secrets of flowering plants — information that could be used to grow better crops. The researcher, Madelaine Bartlett, will study the development and evolution of grass flowers such as corn and wheat.

Bartlett said the goal of the project is to understand how the genetics of grass flowers influence their growth. “As the climate changes, we can develop more and better crops that can survive in places they wouldn’t have been able to survive before,” she said.

Read more in the Boston Globe article

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Professor Adler Receives a $1 Million Grant to Study Sunflower Pollen

Biology professor Lynn Adler at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an expert in pollination and plant-insect interactions, recently received a three-year, $1 million grant from a special “pollinator health” program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the role that sunflower pollen may play in improving bee health.

In addition to basic research, the grant emphasizes extension outreach to the public and stakeholders such as amateur beekeepers, commercial bumblebee producers, vegetable and fruit growers, commercial seed producers and others to make the most useful results and new knowledge available to them.

Read more UMass News & Media Relations article

Digital Life Project Uses 3D Technology to Document Endangered Frogs for Future Generations

The Digital Life team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst led by evolutionary biologist Duncan Irschick today unveiled an online set of 15 three-dimensional (3D) models of live frogs, including several endangered species, to promote conservation, education and science by showcasing their extraordinary beauty and vulnerability to ecological threats.

“Frogs of the World” represents the first-ever use of 3D technology to preserve accurate, high-resolution models of some of the most endangered frog species on the planet, say Irschick and members of the interdisciplinary Digital Life team.

Photo credit Daily Hampshire Gazette

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