Cornell College awarded $1 million grant to support research

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology has awarded Cornell College a $1 million grant to support research led by biology professor Marty Condon. The grant will allow her to continue her long-running research into evolution and biological diversity in the tropics.

Professor Marty Condon has spent years researching what causes tropical flies to split into new species.
Professor Marty Condon has spent years researching what causes tropical flies to split into new species.

The grant is one of only 10 awarded by the foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program this year, and while several research universities are among those receiving grants, Cornell College is the only liberal arts college to be a lead institution.

The grant will support research that builds on the work that led to a March 2014 article in the journal Science.  The paper looked at the unexpected diversity of among a genus of tropical fruit flies, the parasitic wasps that prey on the flies, and the peculiar survival rate of wasp offspring. It will support  collaboration between Condon and Cornell College students and five other institutions as well as fund two research positions at Cornell College.

Condon and her co-authors wrote about the fact that some of the species of fruit flies survive when some species of usually lethal parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside the flies. Condon and her team found that most of the wasps are extreme specialists—their offspring will only survive in one species of fly. If eggs are laid in other species, the offspring die.

Condon said that process is evidence of natural selection. A high death rate of offspring means a stronger selection, which drives evolution.

“We want to figure out the mechanisms of lethality,” she said. “How do wasps kill flies and how do flies kill wasps? We are also looking for evidence of other kinds of defenses in both wasps and flies.”

It’s a complicated, multi-factor problem. The team wants to know which organisms drive the process. The genes of either the flies or the wasps might determine patterns of lethality; alternatively, other organisms, like viruses or bacteria, may determine who lives or dies.

The National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program funds research like Condon’s, which examines the many different ways that the natural world diversifies. The program links functional, genetic and phylogenetic/taxonomic dimensions of biodiversity, offering opportunities to produce rapid advances in understanding the creation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity.

“This year’s Dimensions of Biodiversity investigators join an international and multidisciplinary network of scientists who, through cutting-edge and integrative approaches, are transforming our understanding of biodiversity,” said James Olds, assistant director for the foundation’s Biological Sciences directorate.

Teamwork is critically important in research like this, Condon said. The team includes researchers and students at the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia, the College of Our Lady of the Elms, North Carolina State University, and the Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland.

In addition to Condon, researchers include Brian Wiegmann from North Carolina State University, who studies the long-term evolution of flies, which will help give context to the changes happening in the genomes of the fruit flies; Andrew Forbes from the University of Iowa, who studies evolutionary ecology and was a co-author on Condon’s 2014 Science paper; Gaelen Burke, from the University of Georgia, who studies the ways viruses interact with wasps; and Nina Theis from Elms College, who studies the fragrances of flowers in the squash family.

The grant funds two positions at Cornell College: a post-doctoral research position, which will be filled by Isaac Winkler, who has a Ph.D. in entomology; and a field-coordinator position, which will be filled by Andrew Rasmussen ’11, who accompanied Condon on five trips to the tropics and will help determine the best times and locations for research trips.

Condon had a team of four students on campus doing research this past summer and a fifth doing research as part of a Cornell Fellowship. She has taken at least 30 students with her on trips to the tropics. She also hopes to involve undergraduates from the other institutions in a tropical workshop.