$1.89M NIH grant to advance research in rapid evolution

What if scientists could have the funding to explore new directions of research free from the initial goals written into many grants?

With a recent $1.89 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award from the National Institutes of Health, Seth Rudman has that opportunity. Rudman is an assistant professor in WSU Vancouver’s School of Biological Sciences.

MIRA grants fund the investigator’s big conceptual ideas, the “funding mission,” rather than a specific project. This flexibility allows Rudman the creativity to investigate new ideas as they emerge from his research. “If you find a potentially interesting avenue and a new discovery that you want to pursue, you’re encouraged to go down those paths as long as they fit within the funding mission,” Rudman said.

The five-year grants “are designed to provide stable funding to stellar researchers throughout their career and thus have a very high funding rate for subsequent proposals,” said Christine Portfors, vice chancellor for research and graduate education at WSU Vancouver.

Rudman is using the MIRA grant to study genomic variation and evolution, with a focus on rapid adaptation. Research in rapid evolution and adaptation helps us to understand the fundamental biological process of evolution and provides key insight into areas related to human health, such as antibiotic resistance and cancer.

Scientists know that evolution occurs by adaptation, “but because evolution is often studied after it happens, we know surprisingly little about how fast adaptation occurs and why it occurs and when it occurs,” Catherine Clare, a Ph.D. student in Rudman’s lab said.

Remarkably, adaptation can happen very quickly, as seen in the fruit fly, called Drosophila. “There’s growing recognition that there are species that rapidly adapt, over short generation times, like Drosophila. So, over the course of one season, like this summer, you can see quite a shift in adaptation,” said René Shahmohamadloo, a postdoctoral researcher in Rudman’s lab.

An exceptional aspect of Rudman’s research is the combination of both lab and field experiments. Rudman’s field lab is composed of fruit trees and fruit flies housed inside tent-like structures yet exposed to the elements, allowing selection pressures like wind, rain, and heat to act on their fruit fly populations.

The harsh outdoor setting contrasts with the balmy atmosphere of Rudman’s indoor fruit fly room for an important reason: “The conditions are more like natural conditions,” Rudman said, “and the purpose of that is to try to understand how variation in the genome influences evolutionary outcomes in more realistic settings. And that can help us predict things like how evolution is actually going to occur in pandemic settings or in tumor/cancer settings or in a disease vector setting.”

To learn more about the lab, visit the Rudman lab website.

Originally posted at WSU Vancouver