Discovery Grant backs species diversity work

For most, fruit flies are just a nuisance at a summer picnic. To Western’s Amanda Moehring, however, they offer the perfect model for shedding light on species formation. Most notably, they help her understand how species know with whom to, or not to, mate – a process called behavioural isolation.

“The question of how species arise is critical to our understanding of evolution, conservation of endangered species and maintenance of biodiversity,” said the Biology professor in Western’s Faculty of Science. “Yet, very little is known about the genetic changes that cause either sterility in hybrid offspring or behavioural preference for one’s own species.”

Moehring, a Canada Research Chair in Functional Genomics, is trying to understand how these genetic changes can cause a population to diverge into two distinct species and why they don’t try to merge back together. To aid that effort, she received $225,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Discovery Grants program. Announced today, nearly 100 Western researchers received more than $14.5 million from the program. Western graduate students and postdoctoral fellows also received more than $2.5 million in scholarships and fellowships announced by NSERC this morning.

By turning to the humble fruit fly, Moehring and her team have thus far identified the first three genes responsible for behavioural isolation.

Specifically, they are looking to identify subsets of cells within the brain affected by the three genes, which give rise to female preference and isolation behaviours. Moehring also plans to evaluate these genes in multiple populations within each species to identify the evolutionary context of how these three loci contribute to behaviours within and between species.

The work adds significantly to understandings of the genetic and neural basis of mating behaviour and allows scientists to identify the mechanisms by which behaviour becomes a discriminating mechanism between species. Her work may allow us to one day understand how individuals recognize members of their own species, and why some individuals are fertile while others are not.