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CATCH THE BUZZ- $1.4 Million Grant to Study Pollinator Evolution

By May 19, 2021No Comments

Entomologist to examine how plant domestication influences pollinator evolution

Bees gather pollen on a squash blossom. Entomologist Margarita López-Uribe has received a National Science Foundation grant to study how plant domestication affects the ecology and evolution of wild pollinators.

 Image: Margarita López-Uribe

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A grant of nearly $1.4 million from the National Science Foundation will support a researcher in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences in a study examining the influence of plant domestication on the ecology and evolution of wild pollinator species in agricultural landscapes.

Margarita López-Uribe, Lorenzo L. Langstroth Early Career Professor and assistant professor of entomology, received the award from the prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, which supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in integrating research and education.

López-Uribe will explore how the artificial selection that drives traits in domesticated plant species shapes the ecological interactions and reciprocal evolutionary changes of wild pollinators.

“Agricultural activities are among the strongest evolutionary forces on the planet, with close to 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface already in use for food production,” López-Uribe said. “While the molecular basis of the large variation of phenotypes in domesticated species has been studied extensively, our understanding of how artificial selection drives changes in the ecology and evolution of wild species that interact with crops is poorly understood.”

López-Uribe’s lab will address fundamental questions about the direct and indirect role of artificial selection on the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator dynamics in agroecosystems by using the plant genus Cucurbita — which includes squash and pumpkin — and their specialized pollinators.

She noted that the goals of the research are to characterize the role of reciprocal artificial and pollinator-mediated selection on the evolution of floral functional traits; to determine how shifts in floral signaling of domesticated plants drive changes in pollinator foraging behavior; and to investigate the genetic underpinnings of changes in pollinator sensory systems that result from foraging on domesticated plants.

An educational component of the project is aimed at recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented minority groups to engage in research in ecology, evolutionary biology and entomology that can lead to solutions to real-life problems of pollinators in agricultural systems.

“As part of this project, we also plan to establish a community science project, the ‘Squash Pollinator Network,’ which will engage groups of Master Gardeners across the United States to contribute data to the research,” López-Uribe said. “This will help to build science literacy and connections with agriculture in urban and rural communities that typically are underrepresented in STEM fields.”

In addition, the project has broader research applications, she explained.

“By identifying how artificial selection leads to evolutionary change in plant-pollinator interactions, this study could contribute to the development of crop breeding strategies that provide more ecologically functional floral resources to pollinating species,” she said.

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