Biologist to lead evolutionary research effort under nearly $2 million grant

Armin Moczek and colleagues will study how organisms play an active role in directing their own development and evolution with support from the John Templeton Foundation

An Indiana University biologist will direct an international research effort to understand how plants, mammals and insects play an active role in directing their own development and evolution under a $1.97 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Armin MoczekView print quality image
Armin Moczek. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The leader of the project, which spans five universities in three countries, is Armin Moczek, a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology and an internationally recognized expert on evolutionary development.

"Our current understanding of evolutionary development primarily regards organisms as passive objects: the by-products of mutations that introduce new variation and natural selection that sorts among that variation," Moczek said. "This grant will to move us toward a much broader view by supporting research on whether specific biological mechanisms enable organisms to play an active role in when and how they produce variations and evolve adaptations."

In other words, Moczek said the project will explore the ways in which organisms function as active agents in their own development and evolution. "In doing so, we will explore what a 'scientific theory of agency' might look like, and how it may help us better understand why development and evolution unfold the way they do,"he added.

To illustrate how organisms can play a role in their own development and evolution, Moczek gives a couple of examples:

The first example is ants, which show agency at the level of the social group, or colony. Individual ants do not understand the needs of their colony, he said, yet the colony as a whole can adjust in response to changes in the environment -- such as the unexpected appearance of new food sources, the partial destruction of foraging paths after a storm or changes in vegetation over time. These adjustments, which better enable them to adapt to new conditions or resist stress, emerge through thousands of small interactions among individual ants.

The other is tooth and jaw development in mice. In this case, agency emerges at the cellular level, Moczek said. "Individual cells don't control the precise shape and size of the tooth they help build, but rather each tooth's size, shape and function emerges through these cells' interaction across multiple tissues." As a result, jaws and teeth form to fit together -- as do the teeth on upper and lower jaws.

"In both instances," Moczek added, "form and function emerge through interactions between component parts in response to both internal and external conditions. This responsiveness is key because it allows organisms -- as well as their building blocks, such as cells and tissues and organs -- to form structures that are not only adaptive, functional and resistant to stress, but also flexible in response to new demands."

A beetle in the genus OnthophagusView print quality image
Moczek's lab will contribute to the study by using beetles in the genus Onthophagus. Photo by Alex Wild

Moczek's lab will contribute to the study by using beetles in the genus Onthophagus to investigate how cells' gene regulatory networks respond to internal and external disturbances -- such as mutations inside a cell's genome or changes in cellular nutrients during growth -- as well as how these responses allow developmental processes to remain stable or adapt in the face of changing conditions. Moczek's research on evolutionary development in beetles has been continuously funded for over a decade by the National Science Foundation.

The grants' co-leaders are:

  • Jukka Jernvall, a professor at the University of Helsinki in Finland, who will use mammal tooth development to study how cells and tissues interact in developing organisms to guide emerging structures. He will also draw upon the fossil record to understand how such agency has played a role in tooth evolution over the past 60 million years.
  • Sonia Sultan, a professor at Wesleyan University, who will use plants in the genus Polygonum to understand how plants can respond to environmental circumstances, such as light availability, by adjusting growth, and then transmit that experience to the next generation to shape lineages across generations.
  • Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University, who will use ants in the genus Cephalotes to understand how these insects work together to create foraging trail systems, and how changes in these interactions allow colonies to respond to changes in their environment, including changes to their food supply caused by global climate change.
  • Denis Walsh, a professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, who will focus on the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of agency in living systems.

The three-year grant will also support several postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, as well as workshops, conferences, laboratory supplies and genetic sequencing at IU's Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics. Additional support for two graduate students comes from the IU College of Arts and Sciences and IU Graduate School.

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