Home Biologist Grant helps biologist study ‘complex interplay’ of nature and nurture on genes: NewsCenter

Grant helps biologist study ‘complex interplay’ of nature and nurture on genes: NewsCenter


February 17, 2022

A $2 million grant over 5 years will allow Jennifer Brisson, an associate professor of biology at Rochester, to study the mechanisms that control phenotypic plasticity, a key evolutionary strategy in an organism’s survival pathway. (Photo University of Rochester/J. Adam Fenster)

Jennifer Brisson studies phenotypic plasticity, or how the development of an organism is influenced by its environment.

Many organisms have the ability to alter certain traits in response to their environment. This ability, known as phenotypic plasticity, is an important evolutionary strategy for an organism to better survive.

But how does an organism perceive its environment and pass this information on to its offspring? What are the genetic mechanisms that regulate how environmental cues influence how organisms grow? And how do these processes evolve?

Jennifer Brisson, a biology professor at the University of Rochester, has received a nearly $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study these questions and more in an effort to better understand plasticity. The award, which will be spread over five years, will allow her to study the mechanisms that control phenotypic plasticity and the evolution of responsible genes, which has important implications in human health and disease.

“Since 2013, our lab at the University of Rochester has been studying phenotypic plasticity,” says Brisson. “We are particularly focused on the fascinating topic of how plasticity works at the molecular level and how these molecular mechanisms change over time. This grant will allow us to continue this work.

Pea aphids provide insight into plasticity

Brisson uses genetic mapping, genomics, pharmaceutical manipulations and developmental observations to study phenotypic plasticity in pea aphids.

Close up of a small green insect (pea aphid) crawling on a leaf.

A pea aphid crawls on the leaf of a broad bean plant in Brisson’s lab. Pea aphids are model organisms for studying the roles of nature and food and enabled Brisson to identify in 2020 the first known genetic basis of wing loss in an insect. (Photo University of Rochester/J. Adam Fenster)

Insects, which reproduce rapidly, are ideal model organisms for studying the role of nature and nurture: genetically identical females have wings or are wingless depending on their environmental conditions, while in males the trait is determined by an allele in the genome. . Thus, whether or not the insect has wings is based on two completely different mechanisms – environmental (food) and genetic (nature) – that exist within the same species.

Brisson’s NIH grant will allow her to continue her research, which has already provided first-rate insights into the mechanisms at play in genetic accommodation, where an organism’s traits shift from being influenced by its environment to making part of his genetic makeup. She has already discovered, for example, that the genome of the pea aphid co-opts viral genes that influence whether or not an aphid has wings. She also identified the first known genetic basis for wing loss in an insect.

A variety of organisms, from plants to humans, use phenotypic plasticity, so Brisson’s research has important applications for better understanding how plasticity functions in human health and disease as well.

“Almost every trait, from height and weight to susceptibility to disease, results from a complex interplay between genes and environment,” Brisson explains. “Our project aims to shed light on the ground rules acting to integrate environmental and genetic cues in trait development. This research will therefore lead to fundamental information that will ultimately contribute to reducing the prevalence of human diseases. »

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Keywords: Arts and Sciences, Department of Biology, Jennifer Brisson, National Institutes of Health, research funding

Category: Scientific technology