NSF grant funds study to unlock secrets of biodiversity

October 3, 2013

The tropics are home to a far greater diversity of life than any other region on the planet, but the reasons for this disparity have puzzled scientists for centuries. Today, the need for a clear understanding of how biodiversity is created and maintained has intensified in the face of mass extinctions driven by human activity.

To help shed light on the ultimate causes of biodiversity, the National Science Foundation has awarded $2 million over five years through the Dimensions in Biodiversity program to a group of researchers from five institutions, including the University of Chicago. The collaboration will investigate the biological mechanisms that drive biodiversity in a broad family of butterflies that range from the United States to South America.

"Identifying the factors that generate biodiversity and analyzing how they might differ between the tropics and temperate regions will allow us to better understand one of the most fundamental evolutionary processes," said Marcus Kronforst, PhD, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

The project aims to reveal if diversification can be explained by the number of interactions a species has with other species over time, a concept known as biotic interaction, which is thought to accelerate adaptation. The researchers plan to conduct comprehensive field and genetic studies on the evolutionary mechanisms that cause variations in wing color, vision, smell and taste -- traits that reflect adaptation to diverse environmental and biological interactions -- in American Limenitidini butterflies.

Kronforst will lead the effort to analyze the molecular and genetic mechanisms of speciation in butterfly communities from temperate and tropical environments. By sequencing multiple butterfly genomes and identifying patterns of genetic divergence in areas critical to biotic interaction, such as wing pattern and host-plant usage, he and his team hope to identify differences that reveal the causes of accelerated speciation and greater biodiversity in the tropics.

With biodiversity loss ever increasing due to human activity, new insights into how species evolve -- one of the most outstanding questions in ecology and evolutionary biology -- could be more valuable than ever.

"Understanding how new species are generated and what factors are critical to maintaining species diversity could allow us to engage in conservation efforts in an informed way," said Kronforst.

Collaborators on the project are Sean Mullen at Boston University, Adriana Briscoe at UC Irvine, Keith Willmott at University of Florida and Ryan Hill at University of the Pacific.

NSF grant DEB-1342790.  "Connecting the proximate mechanisms responsible for organismal diversity to the ultimate causes of latitudinal gradients in species richness."

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