Monday, March 30, 2009
Dan Bolnick, an assistant professor in the Section of Integrative Biology, is a stickleback scientist who’s starting to use the fish in a new way to research relationships between organisms and parasites.
Bolnick’s work earned him selection as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Early Career Scientist. John Wallingford, an associate professor of molecular cell and developmental biology, also was selected.
They are among 50 chosen from universities such as Harvard, Columbia, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. The University of Texas at Austin was one of 17 institutions with more than one scientist selected.
HHMI is a leading funder of U.S. biomedical research, granting about $700 million a year to more than 350 researchers.
The scientists receive a six-year appointment to the institute and, along with it, the freedom to explore their best ideas without worrying about where to find the money to fund those experiments.
HHMI said the scientists were chosen, in part, because of their willingness to try new things. It cited Bolnick’s stickleback research as an example.
The sticklebacks Bolnick studies live in lakes in western Canada. The fish’s ocean-going ancestors colonized the lakes created by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The sticklebacks have been remarkably successful in adapting to various niches in their new habitats in a relatively short time.
The environmental variations among the lakes make them the perfect setting for Bolnick to explore how the fish co-evolve with other organisms.
He wants to determine why each lake harbors a distinctive community of parasites. He will then measure how sticklebacks’ immune systems have evolved to fight off the parasites found in any given lake. Sorting out these responses may improve understanding of chronic parasite-borne diseases that affect humans.
Bolnick has studied sticklebacks since 2004. Before that he worked with plants and fruit flies (Drosophila). His first paper as lead author was on fruit flies. He also did some mathematical theory work.
“I started working with stickleback because of the incredible within-species diversity, replicated in thousands of independent natural evolutionary experiments,” he said.
Bolnick realized the stickleback and their lake habitats offer the opportunity to study a model organism where it really lives, outside the laboratory.
“It became clear that stickleback were developing into a next-generation model organism,” he said. “Unlike most model organisms that are kept in the lab, we know an incredible amount about the biology and ecology of natural populations of stickleback, allowing model-organism tools to be applied to natural-organism questions.”