The Colby Magazine has broken news that the lab will be supported over the next five years by a grant from NSF. The funds will support work on an integrative investigation of wing polyphenism in the red-shouldered soapberry bug, Jadera haematoloma. Polyphenisms are a fascinating biological phenomenon that appear in some animals and plants, where individuals of the same species have the ability to develop distinct adult forms based on environmental cues. In other words, the capacity for polyphenic development is genetically determined, but not the specific outcome. Jadera haematoloma have adult morphs of each sex in which the wings are either fully sized or foreshortened, and we don’t see many between those extremes. Resources not used in wing and flight muscle development may then be used for gonad development and production of more offspring.
The ability to reach qualitatively different developmental end points is not something we see among humans. Male and female development is different, of course, but this is not environmentally determined, as we suspect wing morphs are among J. haematoloma. So the project will include an investigation of the cues for each morphs, the mechanism by which those cues influence development, as well as an exploration of wing patterning to enable us to determine where wing development diverges in each morph. We will also conduct experimental selection experiments to explore how this phenomenon may evolve. While this is basic research, the regulation of organ size is relevant to human diseases, not least cancer, or the work should find a broader audience outside the world of insect developmental biology.
Perhaps most exciting, the wing morphs of this species have implications for how members of the species can move around. Soapberry bugs have been expanding from their ancestral range in Florida as far north as Maryland. Short-winged bugs can’t flight, so it’s up to long-winged morphs to colonize new habitat. We are now organizing a network of public school teachers and students to participate in surveys of the bugs and their host plants. (If you’re reading this and want to get involved, e-mail me.)
Watch this space for more on the project!