This action funds an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology for FY 2020, Integrative Research Investigating the Rules of Life Governing Interactions Between Genomes, Environment and Phenotypes. The fellowship supports research and training of the Fellow that will contribute to the area of Rules of Life in innovative ways. Wolbachia bacteria are maternally transmitted and infect the cells of nearly half of all insect species, and often hijack host reproduction to increase their spread. For example, many Wolbachia cause cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI) that results in embryonic death when infected males fertilize uninfected eggs?infected eggs are rescued from this lethality, providing a relative fitness advantage to infected females. Several CI-causing Wolbachia that infect Drosophila also protect their host from viruses. In recent years, researchers have leveraged CI to transform mosquito populations with virus-blocking Wolbachia to successfully reduce the spread of Zika and dengue to humans on several continents. The strength of CI can vary greatly, from very weak to near complete embryonic death, but little is known about the genetic and cellular basis of this variation. Understanding this variation is crucial to explain the global Wolbachia pandemic in natural insect systems, and to improve the efficacy of Wolbachia biocontrol in transinfected-mosquito systems.
The Fellow?s PhD work revealed the genetic basis of CI, but the causes of pervasive CI-strength variation remain unknown. This postdoctoral research will determine the relative contributions of transcriptional and genetic diversity of CI-causing genes to variable CI strength. To achieve this goal, the Fellow will use a combination of genomics, transcriptomics, microscopy, and machine learning tools to rigorously dissect CI-strength variation across Drosophila. This project will identify the basis of CI strength diversity, enhance our understanding of the population genetics of this powerful drive mechanism, and inform vector control programs that leverage CI. During the fellowship period, the Fellow will also lead multiple broader impact initiatives including the development of workshops to teach Native American middle-school students about topics spanning biodiversity to molecular biology, and the introduction of a science club event for children in Missoula, Montana, to learn science through scientific games and activities.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.