Public Release: 

Rice wins $5m to probe social evolution using latest genetic tools

One of first grants in NSF program aimed at biology's 'grand challenges'

Rice University

HOUSTON, Sept. 24, 2003 -- A new National Science Foundation program taking on grand challenges in biological research has awarded $5 million to a Rice University-led team of biologists who will use the latest techniques of modern molecular genetics and large-scale genomics to study the causes, mechanisms and effects of social evolution.

Rice evolutionary biologists David Queller and Joan Strassmann are teaming with geneticists and developmental biologists from Baylor College of Medicine on the five-year project, with approximately half of the funds going to each institution.

The project brings together expertise in genomics and social evolution to provide the most thorough understanding yet of the genetic basis and evolutionary history of complex social behavior. It is one of just six inaugural projects unveiled in today's launch of the NSF's Frontier's in Integrated Biological Research program.

"Some of the most significant transitions in evolution -- the emergence of chromosomes, cells, eukaryotes and multicellular organisms -- occurred when formerly separate entities overcame conflicts and merged into a greater whole," said Queller, principal investigator on the project. "So it's clear that understanding social evolution is central to understanding the very structure of life, and yet very little has been done to apply the modern tools of genetics and genomics to the study of social evolution."

To apply those methods, Queller and colleagues are using the single-celled social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum as the model organism for their experiments. A favorite model system among developmental and cell biologists, social amoebae are an excellent system for studying social evolution because they work collectively to form colonies. Though the cells in these colonies cooperate, prior studies by Queller and Strassmann have shown how groups of amoebae that contain dissimilar genes compete within the colony to gain a reproductive advantage.

"The genetic tools and simplicity of sociality in social amoebae make it easier to study the processes of cooperation and conflict that also operate in other organisms," said Strassmann.

The social evolution project has four goals. First, it will uncover the genes and molecular pathways underlying sociality. Second, it will probe the evolutionary history of these genes. For example, the research will test whether social forces create significant evolutionary pressures, and it will demonstrate the social function of ancestral genes by recreating them and testing them in vivo. Third, the project will generate experimental evidence for how opportunistic, non-altruistic behavior is controlled, a process that was essential in the major evolutionary transitions noted above.

Finally, the knowledge gained in the lab will be used to understand how social evolution works in the wild.

Rice's portion of the grant will fund a number of postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduate researchers in Queller and Strassmann's research group. It will also fund a portion of the project's outreach initiatives, which include the development of an educational Web site and partnerships to recruit and train students from high-minority schools, including the University of Houston-Downtown and local public schools.

Queller and Strassmann are professors of ecology and evolutionary biology. Baylor co-principal investigators include Adam Kuspa, professor of developmental biology; Gad Shaulsky, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics; and Chad Shaw, instructor of molecular and human genetics.

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