Phenotypic plasticity affects an array of human characteristics, from height and weight to disease susceptibility. Yet the mechanisms by which environmental inputs are detected and then alter developmental programs are not well understood, and experimental models for studying this link are limited. This project addresses the fascinating problem of how both the environment and genetic variation influence the development of alternative phenotypes using an innovative model system, the pea aphid. This species offers an unparalleled opportunity to examine the role of nature and nurture in phenotype determination: it exhibits dramatically different winged and wingless morphs that are induced by environmental conditions in asexual females and by a single unidentified genetic locus in males. Thus, strikingly, two dimorphisms, each under different control mechanisms, exist within this single species. Here we propose a comprehensive investigation of the developmental and genetic basis of both dimorphisms, the first study of its kind, with a research plan that builds upon extensive preliminary data.
In Aim 1 we will identify and characterize the wing polymorphism locus to illuminate how this single locus can cause dramatic differences in morphology in males. Our methods include association mapping using genome sequencing, gene expression level profiling across development using qRT-PCR, gene expression spatial profiling using in situ hybridization at targeted developmental stages, and mutant analysis using the CRISPR/Cas9 system.
In Aim 2, we will study the hormonal basis of wing determination to ascertain how environmental cues are translated into phenotypic differences in females. We will test the role of a steroid hormone, ecdysone, in this process. We will measure ecdysone titer levels in induced mothers (winged offspring producers) versus uninduced mothers (wingless offspring producers), and experimentally manipulate their offspring phenotypes via injection of ecdysone. Further, we will measure expression levels of ecdysone-responsive genes via qRT-PCR in the embryos of mothers receiving or not receiving wing-inducing signals.
In Aim 3, we will examine the extent to which there are shared mechanisms underlying the environmentally induced and genetically controlled dimorphisms, to establish how the two dimorphisms are related at the mechanistic level. We will approach this problem by looking for an effect of mutating the male polymorphism gene on the female alternative morphs and by measuring gene expression of ecdysone-responsive genes in winged and wingless male aphids via qRT-PCR. Overall, this research will result in a model of how both environmental and genetic factors influence similar alternative phenotypes. We anticipate that a major finding of this work will be the illumination of how environmental signals are bypassed when there is an evolutionary transition to genetic control of phenotypic variation.

Public Health Relevance

Nearly all phenotypes, from height and weight to disease susceptibility, result from a complex interplay between genes and the environment. This project aims to illuminate basic rules acting to integrate environmental and genetic signals in the production of the phenotype. Thus, the proposed research is relevant to the part of NIH's mission that pertains to developing fundamental knowledge that will help to reduce the prevalence of human disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Genetic Variation and Evolution Study Section (GVE)
Program Officer
Hoodbhoy, Tanya
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Rochester
Other Domestic Higher Education
United States
Zip Code
Grantham, Mary E; Brisson, Jennifer A (2018) Extensive Differential Splicing Underlies Phenotypically Plastic Aphid Morphs. Mol Biol Evol 35:1934-1946
Vellichirammal, Neetha Nanoth; Gupta, Purba; Hall, Tannice A et al. (2017) Ecdysone signaling underlies the pea aphid transgenerational wing polyphenism. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114:1419-1423
Brisson, Jennifer A; Davis, Gregory K (2016) The right tools for the job: Regulating polyphenic morph development in insects. Curr Opin Insect Sci 13:1-6
Vellichirammal, Neetha N; Madayiputhiya, Nandakumar; Brisson, Jennifer A (2016) The genomewide transcriptional response underlying the pea aphid wing polyphenism. Mol Ecol 25:4146-60
Grantham, Mary E; Antonio, Chris J; O'Neil, Brian R et al. (2016) A case for a joint strategy of diversified bet hedging and plasticity in the pea aphid wing polyphenism. Biol Lett 12: