Ecological genomics links future with past


A special twist on the nature versus nurture debate is grabbing the attention of students seeking a graduate degree in biology.

K-State’s Division of Biology’s Ecological Genomics Institute studies the genetic mechanisms responsible for organisms’ adaptive responses to their environment, providing a diverse area of study that appeals to a wide variety of students.

“I found the eco gen program very interesting,” said Corin White, a first-year doctoral student in biology from Santa Clara, Calif. “When I was looking at graduate schools, I was looking for an interdisciplinary program that addressed topics in ecology, behavior, genetics and evolution, and eco gen combines those interests.”

White is studying genes involved in immune response to the nosocomial bacteria, Stenotrophomonas maltophilia in the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, under the direction of her mentor, Michael Herman, professor of biology. Before coming to K-State, White had limited experience with genetics and chose the ecological genomics program because of its diverse faculty expertise.

“The faculty is knowledgeable in various areas,” White said. “If I have a question about any technique, someone here will find or have the answer.”

Lindsey Fallis, a doctoral student in biology from Harper, also chose K-State for its ecological genomics program.

“We all see evidence for evolution outside,” Fallis said. “We see phenotypes changing and how everything fits perfectly into an ecosystem. But I find it really interesting when you can get to the molecular level and you can actually trace what has happened. You are essentially figuring out what happened in the past through genes and DNA.”

Fallis is studying the genes in Drosophila melanogaster, a species of fruit fly, that are responsible for thermal tolerance and for the phenotypic differences within and among populations collected from colder verses warmer climates. She is working with Ted Morgan, assistant professor of biology.

“We are seeing changes in the DNA that are potentially affecting the phenotype, but we haven’t directly tested that yet,” Fallis said.

The Ecological Genomics Institute fosters interactions between biologists and other scientists in pathology, entomology, agronomy, and computer and information sciences.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the ecological genomics program gave Fallis the opportunity to converse with faculty outside of the Division of Biology, which gave her a new outlook on her research, making her analysis of her approach more effective.

“It’s important as a scientist to be able to critique all kinds of biology and not just your specific little corner,” Fallis said. “Sometimes things get really specific but you need to remember how it all ties together. It is also important to be open to different viewpoints from outside the department. Different perspectives might bring a new light to your research.”

“Ecological genomics is unique because it’s an interdisciplinary way of doing biology,” said Michael Herman, co-founder of the Ecological Genomics Institute. “Our research spans levels of biology, from molecules and genes up through higher levels of organization, and we hope up to the ecosystem level.”

Both White and Fallis had research presentations at the ninth annual Ecological Genomics Research Forum that featured the research of 13 other students and postdoctoral fellows in the Ecological Genomics Institute. White also presented her research at the 18th International C. elegans Meeting sponsored by the Genetics Society of America Conferences in Los Angeles, where she won second place for her poster presentation. Both students would like to ultimately find employment in the academic research field.

“The big overarching question is, How do organisms adapt in nature? That’s a question that has been asked in biology for a hundreds of years, and now we’re addressing it at the molecular level,” Fallis said.