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Steve Chaplin
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, August 6, 2012

Innovative teaching, research on gene evolution earn IU biologist NSF's young faculty award

From Cornell to Brown to $1 million award for work to be conducted at IU

Aug. 6, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - An Indiana University biologist has been awarded more than $1 million to advance her research through the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award in support of junior faculty, the Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Kristi Montooth

Kristi Montooth

Kristi Montooth, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology, will receive $1,052,975 over the next five years to investigate both plastic physiologies -- the changes that occur within the lifespan of organisms to deal with the environment -- and physiological adaptations that evolve to fit organisms to their environment through natural selection. The NSF CAREER award specifically funds faculty who effectively integrate their research with education efforts; Montooth develops novel curriculum in her introductory biology lectures to teach scientific information literacy.

"Organisms have a remarkable capacity to respond physiologically to their environment to maintain survival and health even in times of stress," Montooth said. "The goal of this research is to identify the interactions among multiple genes that cause these plastic and adaptive responses to a complex environment."

Montooth will use the model genetic organism Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly) to test hypotheses about how changes in cell membranes and metabolism maintain cellular health, organismal performance and fitness in thermally-variable and alcohol-rich environments. D. melanogaster, while native to tropical Africa, has expanded its range in the last 10,000 years and now successfully lives in higher latitudes with more variable thermal environments, including as far north as Norway and as far south as Tasmania. At the same time, Montooth noted, it has also evolved a remarkable tolerance to ethanol and acetic acid in its fermenting-fruit habitat.

"The natural history of this fruit fly allows us to investigate how organisms are likely to respond to a complex and increasingly variable climate," she said. "Drosophila have a unique ecology and physiology, acquiring their nutrients in habitats ranging from desert cactus rots to ethanol-rich vineyards and then using these nutrients to maintain the high metabolism required to fly and to produce large numbers of offspring."

Environmental ethanol and acetic acid present a toxic challenge to species that inhabit rotting fruit, but the fruit fly's efficient catabolism -- the breaking down of large molecules like polysaccharides and proteins into smaller units like monosaccharides and amino acids -- provides a valuable pool of the important molecule acetyl-CoA to fuel metabolic processes.

"D. melanogaster has evolved a remarkable ability to maintain healthy cells in the presence of toxin and temperature stress," she said. "This project characterizes how genes involved in ethanol metabolism and cell membrane physiology interact in the evolution of toxin and temperature tolerance."

Researchers already know that ethanol disrupts membrane function by making membranes more fluid, and as cold-blooded animals, fruit flies depend upon adjusting membrane fluidity in response to both environmental temperature and ethanol.

Indiana Vino

Montooth's lab will use fruit flies collected from Indiana's own vineyards and orchards, two fermentation-rich environments where flies love to get their nutrients. Montooth added that Drosophila melanogaster is not a pest to humans or to fruit.

Print-Quality Photo

The research in Montooth's lab will lead to a better understanding of how cells maintain health and membrane function under ethanol stress, and she points out that ethanol has similar consequences for both human and fly cells. Additionally, ethanol metabolism genes are shared by flies and humans. This research will also develop new methods for associating physiological traits with complex genetic variation at multiple genes that can be used in interpreting the information from the hundreds of fruit fly and human genomes that are currently being sequenced, Montooth added.

"Not only can membrane fluidity significantly affect ethanol tolerance, but a gene that regulates membranes -- the dSREBP transcription factor -- also regulates expression of ethanol metabolism genes," Montooth said. "The genome is complex and it regulates complex physiologies that respond to a complex environment. My lab is excited to be tackling this important genetic, physiological and evolutionary complexity."

Montooth came to IU's Department of Biology in 2008 after conducting postdoctoral research at Brown University in the laboratory of David Rand, where she was a National Institute of Health National Research Service Award Research Fellow. She was awarded a Ph.D. from Cornell University's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in 2005, where she also earned a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fellow award. The lab publishes in journals that span the fields of evolutionary biology, physiology and genetics, reflecting the integrative approach its members have adopted.

For more information or to speak with Montooth, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or Tweeting Indiana Science; blogging Science at Work.