With funding from the NSF EPSCOR program and in collaboration with colleagues across the country, we’re embarking on a 4-year mission to investigate epigenetic mechanisms of thermal adaptation in Drosophila
In this project, a team of researchers from VT, RI, and KY will work collaboratively to test the hypothesis that epigenetic regulators act as an intermediary between environmental sensors and protein production, altering the set of genes available for transcription at the level of chromatin accessibility and then fine-tuning expression through the action of epitranscriptomic molecules. The primary objectives are to determine: 1) whether and how epigenetic mechanisms mediate plastic changes in thermal tolerance; 2) the extent to which epigenetic variation underlies natural segregating variation in phenotypic plasticity; and 3) the role of epigenetic divergence in shifting capacity for acclimation over evolutionary time. To identify epigenetic mechanisms driving plasticity, the project team will characterize changes in chromatin accessibility, post-translational histone modification, miRNA and lncRNA associated with developmental acclimation, adult-reversible acclimation, and rapid hardening in response to high and low temperatures in Drosophila melanogaster. Functional genetic manipulations will be used to validate candidate causal epigenetic mechanisms. Genome-wide association mapping and experimental evolution approaches will be employed to evaluate the genetic architecture of thermal plasticity. Finally, to test whether niche transitions to colder or warmer habitats are accompanied by evolutionary gains or losses of these plastic responses, the researchers will reconstruct the history of evolutionary shifts in capacity for thermal plasticity in species across New World species of Drosophila. The project will establish comparative and experimental models for understanding the evolutionary history and molecular mechanisms of thermal plasticity that are ideally suited to address long-standing hypotheses concerning the drivers of plasticity, and investigate the ecological and evolutionary role of plasticity in promoting organismal resilience in the face of rapid, progressive shifts in climate. This project will involve five junior faculty members with different areas of expertise. Two junior faculty members are from Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs), and mentoring programs that target these junior faculty members are in place. Three post-doctoral research associates will be involved in the project, who will become familiar with the experiences of faculty members at both PUIs and PhD granting institutions.
We are very excited to be working on this major NSF-funded research project with colleagues at the University of Vermont, Salve Regina University, and the University of Kentucky. We will be studying how evolution, physiology, and the biological mechanisms controlling gene expression allow organisms to respond to stressful environments, focusing specifically on thermal and metabolic physiology in insects.
In addition to the research, the grant will also support training, mentorship, and community engagement, including a summer coding boot camp for high school students. If you are a student at Providence College interested in participating in this project, please reach out and let us know.
Stay tuned for more updates soon as we setup the lab, begin experiments, and take field collecting trips to find species of Drosophilidae in their natural habitats.