Individuals of the same species often differ in important traits, and these differences are known functions of genetic and environmental influences. For most species, however, a mechanistic understanding of the origin and maintenance of individual variation is still missing. This project proposes mechanistic connections among three seemingly unrelated traits: investment in sexual versus asexual reproduction, feeding performance on rich versus poor resources, and susceptibility to parasites. The investigators hypothesize that differences in feeding rates create a causal chain of relationships that ultimately promotes the maintenance of diversity through basic ecological mechanisms. To test these ideas, the research combines monitoring of biodiversity and diseases in natural populations with laboratory experiments designed to disentangle genetic versus environmental factors shaping the traits of individuals. By determining how seemingly unrelated traits are integrated into distinct strategies, and examining how the frequency of different strategies varies along a natural ecological gradient, the research will provide novel insights into the ecological pressures maintaining phenotypic and genetic variation in natural populations.
Results from this study will significantly advance understanding of how diseases spread and how biodiversity is maintained. Diverse educational opportunities will be provided for undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral scientists, and research technicians. The investigators will develop a public lecture series, a summer science camp, and a new biology-mathematics course, and support activities focused on recruitment, retention and mentoring of students from under-represented groups in STEM.