NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology FY 2020

  • Milligan, Patrick P.D. (PI)
  • Langberg, Michael (PI)
  • Jiang, Anxiao A. (CoPI)
  • שורץ, משה (CoPI)
  • Bruck, Jehoshua (CoPI)

Project Details


This action funds an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology for FY 2020, Integrative Research Investigating the Rules of Life Governing Interactions Between Genomes, Environment and Phenotypes. The fellowship supports research and training of the Fellow that will contribute to the area of Rules of Life in innovative ways. In nature, many species form partnerships with one or more other species. These 'mutualisms' are widespread and provide key services to ecosystems, including many important economic benefits such as crop pollination. A particularly well studied mutualism is the partnership between a single 'host' plant and multiple insect species. Often the plant interacts with 'good' partners (for example, a bee that spreads plant pollen) but also must deal with 'cheating' partners (such as a 'nectar thief' fly that does not move pollen). In this work, the Fellow will investigate a key question for these types of partnerships: 'How do plants focus investments in good partners while minimizing interactions with cheaters?' This project will help scientists understand whether and how a plant can actively maintain stable partnerships, which is increasingly important as natural habitats become more destabilized by human development. The study will also become a platform for educational outreach programs and an international investigation that will involve collaborations among diverse groups of students and scientists.

The Fellow will address this research topic by performing experiments in the savannas of Kenya, where 'whistling acacia' trees form partnerships with several ant species that range from 'good partners' to 'cheaters'. The Fellow will manipulate the presence of ants on acacias in open savannas and areas that have been fenced off from large herbivores in order to determine plant responses to each ant species and then when teamed with other ant partners. With training from Dr. Elizabeth Pringle (University of Nevada-Reno), the Fellow will measure resulting changes in acacia physiological traits (related to photosynthesis, metabolic processes, and water stress). Training with Drs. Bridgett vonHoldt (Princeton University) and Rebecca Kartzinel (Brown University) will allow the measurement of genomic methylation changes that influence such physiology. These investigations will be used in discovery-based international ecology courses and Kenyan high-school biology courses, thus promoting STEM proficiency for collaborating American and Kenyan students. The Fellow will also construct a greenhouse experiment at the University of Nevada-Reno and mentor first-generation university students in experiments that investigate whether and how the physiological and genomic adjustments by acacias can be inherited by their offspring.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date1/01/1031/12/24


  • United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF)


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