Biologists have learned a great deal about the developmental and genetic changes that are necessary to facilitate gradual evolutionary modifications. For instance, much is known about the genetic and developmental basis that enable legs or wings to become longer, or eyes to become more efficient in a given environment. However, little remains known about how major complex traits, such as legs, wings or eyes, originate in the first place. What does it take to evolve the first limb, or wing, or eye, from a limbless and blind ancestor?
This research investigates the origin and diversification of novel traits using the unique, diverse and morphologically spectacular horns of beetles as focal traits. Beetle horns are produced in body regions in which other insects do not produce outgrowths, are highly variable in shape and size, and endow their bearers with an ecologically important function: a weapon to be used in combat between rival males over females. Beetle horns thus offer an outstanding opportunity to investigate the genetic and developmental means by which novel traits come into being and are elaborated upon as a group of organisms diversifies.
Specifically, this research uses molecular genetic and developmental approaches to investigate the regulation of growth, shape, and positioning of traditional appendages (such as legs or wings) and recently evolved, novel appendages (such as horns). In doing so, this research aims to identify the degree to which innovation and diversification in nature are enabled by novel genes and developmental pathways, or the re-use and modification of existing genes and pathways, or combinations of these two alternatives. As such it addresses a fundamental, unresolved question in evolutionary and developmental biology: how novelty can arise in nature from within the confines of ancestral variation.
Lastly, this research interfaces tightly with several educational and outreach efforts. (1) Using a collaboration with a local children's museum for science, health and technology this research will help provide training and educational resources in insect biology to approximately 180 local and regional K-12 teachers over the course of 3 years. (2) This research will help train at least 8 young scientists (6 undergraduate students, 1 graduate student, 1 postdoc) in intensive interdisciplinary research. (3) Lastly, it will facilitate educational outreach by helping recruit 6 high school teachers and 6 minority high school students for summer research immersion and introduce them to research in development, evolution, and ecology.