In 2009 the National Science Foundation funded a grant to sequence the complete genome and transcriptome of the red harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. Much of my current research is devoted to developing this as a research tool, and analyzing it to understand the evolution of sociality (and reproductive division of labor).The harvester ant genome project is hosted at Hymenoptera Genome Database
Photo (C) Alex Wild
The topic of division of labor is central in almost all of my research interests. With many collaborators I have been investigating how physical castes in ants, particularly harvester ants, are produced, and how labor is divided among the distinct castes. In addition to exploring the mechanisms of how division of labor is produced, I have projects investigating the origins (and losses) of castes in ants and why castes are gained and lost. These projects involve not only reproductive division of labor in ant societies, the queen and worker castes, but the elaboration of the worker caste into distinct morphologies with distinct task repertoires. Understanding how and why division of labor occurs in ant societies may lead to downstream insights that are directly applicable to human health, information systems theory (i.e.,
Photo (C) Adrian A. Smiththe evolution and maintenance of complex systems/societies), and the evolution of social systems. This is because ant castes can vary greatly in longevity (lifespans in harvester ants range from months to many decades), reproduction, physiology, behavior, among others, and we now have the capacity to look for the genes that regulate these processes through the harvester ant genome (and related ant genomes). Furthermore, ant societies arise from a complex interplay between individual development/behavior and social context, and a comparative approach can reveal similarities and differences in how societies develop and maintain homeostasis.
Ok, so this might seem a bit of a stretch for an evolutionary ecologist specializing in ants. It is. Nonetheless, this is what happened when I moved to the midwest, surrounded by corn/soy and began thinking about these spaces as habitat. If you have ever been in corn and soy fields you know that they are clearly very different habitats. Similarly, if you have ever looked at the microbial diversity of soil you know that it is hyper-diverse. I started wondering whether soil communities were still hyperdiverse (on a relative scale) in these monoculture ecosystems, and similarly, whether there was great turnover in the soil community when crops are rotated (as the habitat, from fertilization and soil chemistry to shade and water retention, changes so dramatically). Through funding from NSF we have initiated a project examining soil microbial communities in local agroecosystems. This funding is primarily for the development of teaching modules across the biology curriculum; metagenomics seems a natural subject for students to tackle a single problem from multiple perspectives, from ecology to cell biology. For example, we can examine whether corn and soy agroecosystems similar in terms of community composition in one class and whether there are cellular pathways or processes enriched or absent in one or the other. This is an exciting project that has the potential to have knock-on effects for eduction (bridging the divide between cell/molecular and organismal areas of the curriculum) as well as agriculture (what is the soil community and can we start to see core differences in communities depending on crop type or agricultural practice...are there good or bad communities?).