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Steve Chaplin
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2012

NSF again funds IU biologist's exploration of innovation, diversification in nature

Beetle horns, as sexual weaponry, remain focus of Moczek's novel traits research

Jan. 17, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University developmental and evolutionary biologist Armin Moczek begins a new year with a new National Science Foundation grant of $617,000 to fund continued investigations into the origin and evolution of novel traits. For Moczek, those novel traits are combat tools: the horns male dung beetles use to battle and defeat male competitors with the hope of winning a female sexual partner.

Moczek Bugs

IU evolutionary biologist Armin Moczek's work on the development of novel traits in beetles has received over $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation since his arrival at IU Bloomington's Department of Biology in 2004.

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"Beetle horns offer an outstanding opportunity to investigate the genetic and developmental means by which novel traits come into being and are elaborated upon as a group of organisms diversifies," said the associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology.

That's because beetle horns are produced in body regions in which other insects do not produce outgrowths, because the horns are highly variable in shape and size, and, most importantly to an evolutionary biologist and the male beetles themselves, the horns endow their bearers with that ecologically important function of having a weapon to combat rival males.

NSF grant reviewers must have approved of what they saw in Moczek's research since the agency awarded him two grants -- including one with fellow IU biologist and associate professor Justen Andrews -- totaling over $1 million in 2008, the last of which was due to expire later this year. Since coming to IU in 2004 with a Ph.D. from Duke University, the two-time IU Trustees' Teaching Award winner first received $395,000 from the NSF in 2005, with additional funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Indiana Metabolomics and Cytomics Initiative, the Eli Lilly Foundation and the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation.

"Much is known about the genetic and developmental bases that enable legs or wings to become longer, or eyes to become more efficient in a given environment," Moczek said. "But little remains known about how major complex traits, such as legs, wings or eyes, originate in the first place. What does it take to evolve the first limb, or wing, or eye, from a limbless and blind ancestor?"

And that is the heart of Moczek's work: How novelty can arise in nature from within the confines of ancestral variation. Using molecular genetic and developmental approaches to investigate the regulation of growth, shape and positioning of traditional appendages, such as legs or wings, and recently evolved, novel appendages like horns, his laboratory hopes to identify the degree to which innovation and diversification in nature are enabled by novel genes and developmental pathways, or the re-use and modification of existing genes and pathways, or combinations of those two alternatives.

The new award will run through 2014 and will also enable him to continue his public outreach and educational efforts, including collaboration with a Bloomington children's museum for science, health and technology; providing training and educational resources in insect biology to approximately 180 local and regional K-12 teachers; training at least eight young scientists (six undergraduates, one graduate student and one postdoctoral researcher) in intensive interdisciplinary research; and facilitating the recruitment of six high school teachers and six minority high school students for summer research immersion and introduction to research in development, evolution and ecology.

To learn more about the Moczek lab's earlier work, which has been featured internationally in media including National Geographic, United Press International, U.S. News and World Report, and the BBC, view these previously published IU Communications reports: "Dogs, maybe not, but old genes can learn new tricks," and "Shape, fit of male, female reproductive organs evolve quickly and in concert, leaving size by the wayside."

To speak with Moczek, please contact Steve Chaplin, IU Communications, at 812-856-1896 or Tweeting IU Science: @IndianaScience