Professor receives award for marine evolution studies

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Integrative biology professor Dan Bolnick received the David Starr Jordan Prize for his work on how genetic variations increase the survivability of a species.

In a speech Thursday, after receiving the David Starr Jordan Prize, integrative biology professor Dan Bolnick said he believes his research has the potential to help other scientists learn more about how genetic variations increase the survivability of a species. 

Bolnick received the award as recognition for his work studying the evolution of sticklebacks — a type of fish found in the Northern Hemisphere as far north as the Arctic Ocean — and other organisms. Professors from Cornell, Stanford and Indiana University created the award to honor young scientists in biology whose research has the potential to impact the field in an innovative way. 

Bolnick’s research found a relationship between genetic variability and survivability of a species.

“Are less variable populations more prone to extinction?” Bolnick said. “It turns out, they are. We can create more genetically variable populations — track [fruit flies] for 25 generations and see that less variable populations go extinct more often than genetically diverse ones.”

Variations within populations of organisms, such as fruit flies and flower beetles, have occurred as a result of genetic mutations, according to Bolnick. He said he chose to study fruit flies because they have short life cycles and tend to have many genetic mutations, which make them easier to study. 

Bolnick also studied the evolution of the host-parasite relationship between sticklebacks and tapeworms, according to his lab technician Kum Shim.

“[Bolnick] was studying some populations in Vancouver Island,” Shim said. “He found that some of the lakes had fishes with tapeworms, and some lakes didn’t have any.”

According to Shim, Bolnick studied how the sticklebacks acquired genetic mutations that made them more resistant to the tapeworm parasites. 

“Generally, we’re interested in the processes that give rise to variation between individuals,” Bolnick said. “We want to know, as a lab, why within a species individuals are different from each other, and that requires an understanding of the genetics, individual differences, as well as how those individual differences are functioning in a natural setting.”

According to Peter Wainwright, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California-Davis, Bolnick’s experience in a number of different fields of biology is what sets him apart from other scientists. 

“He is an ecologist with a remarkable ability to integrate across speciation, microevolution, genetics and immunology,” Wainwright said.