Public Release:  Rutgers scientists selected for international research initiative on evolution of insects

Rutgers University

Two researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey - one from the Newark campus, the other from New Brunswick - are among an international team of more than 50 scientists embarking on a massive project to unravel the secrets of the evolutionary history of insects.

Jessica L. Ware, an assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences on the Newark campus, and Karl Kjer, professor, Department of Ecology Evolution and Natural Resources, New Brunswick, are part of a select group of U.S. researchers working on the project, a synergistic collaboration among experts from a wide range of research fields: molecular biology, morphology, paleontology, embryology, bioinformatics, and scientific computing. The scientists come from eight nations: Australia, Austria, China, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and the U.S.

Ware was invited to join the collaboration by Kjer, who initiated the project with Dr. Xin Zhou, head of the National Bio-resource Bank of Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), China, and Prof. Bernhard Misof, head of the Department of Molecular Biodiversity Research at the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany. Zhou is Ware's former lab-mate and a fellow Rutgers graduate (Ph.D., 2007).

"Insects are diverse, economically and ecologically important organisms," explains Ware. "1KITE will help scientists uncover relationships among these remarkable organisms and tease apart the dates of origin of social behavior, parasitic behaviors, herbivory, flight, and so forth. I am eager to collaborate with such a diverse group of scientists to unlock the secrets hidden within insect genomes."

Since 2010, Ware has been an assistant professor in the biology department at Rutgers Newark, where she teaches graduate-level courses in evolution. She received her bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and her doctorate from Rutgers in 2008. She is an editor of the journals International Journal of Odonatology and Organisms Diversity and Evolution.

Karl Kjer has taught at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences since 1996. He received his bachelor of arts degree in biology and music from Concordia College, and his Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He was a postdoctoral associate at Brigham Young University for three years before coming to Rutgers. Kjer is an assistant editor of the journals Systematic Biology, and Arthropod Systematics and Phylogeny.

The project will unravel the secrets of the evolutionary history of insects using a molecular data set of unparalleled dimensions and quality. A "transcriptome" includes the sequences of all the sets of genes that are being "translated " into proteins in a particular organism at the time it was collected. It represents a major and important part of the complete genome, since these mRNAs are involved in the life processes of the organism and how it interacts with its ecosystem. Analyses of the transcriptome data will allow the reconstruction of a robust phylogenetic, or evolutionary, tree of insects, which will help scientists understand their astonishing success.

Started in September 2011, the transcriptomes of 1,000 insect species will be investigated. BGI - the world's largest genomic sequencing center - has invested initiating funds for t he $6 million international project, and has made its extensive sequencing infrastructure available to achieve this goal.

The project also includes the development of new and advanced approaches analyzing enormous phylogenomic data sets, which are generated by new laboratory techniques at an ever-increasing rate. "These data will produce the best resolved tree of insects, setting the stage for comparative analyses of genome evolution" says Misof.

Insects are the most species-rich group of animals. They play a pivotal role in most non-marine ecosystems; many insect species are of enormous economic and medical importance as pests, pollinators, disease vectors, and keystone species. "It will be essential to resolve the relationships within insects in order to understand how such an immense diversity of insects could have evolved. Since insects are such a fundamental component of biodiversity we hope to answer why ecosystems shaped and adjusted in the way they are," says Zhou.

Part of the project is devoted to the development of new bioinformatics methods. "The production of new data has gained such an enormous speed recently, that the analysis and storage of the data will become the real challenge in the near future," says Dr. Alexandros Stamatakis, head of the High Performance Computing Department at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany.

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In addition to Rutgers, North Carolina State University and the University of Minnesota are involved.

Further information is available from www.1kite.org

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