NSFGEO-NERC: Mechanisms of Adaptation to Terrestrial Antarctica through Comparative Physiology and Genomics of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Insects
The cold, dry terrestrial environments of Antarctica are inhospitable for insects, and only three midge species make Antarctica home. Of these, Belgica antarctica is the only species found exclusively in Antarctica, and it has been a resident of Antarctica since the continent split from South America ~30 million years ago. Thus, this species is an excellent system to model the biological history of Antarctica throughout its repeated glaciation events and shifts in climate. This insect is also a classic example of extreme adaptation, and much previous work has focused on identifying the genetic and physiological mechanisms that allow this species to survive where no other insect is capable. However, it has been difficult to pinpoint the unique evolutionary adaptations that are required to survive in Antarctica due to a lack of information from closely related Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species. This project will compare adaptations, genome sequences, and population characteristics of four midge species that span an environmental gradient from sub-Antarctic to Antarctic habitats. In addition to B. antarctica, these species include two species that are strictly sub-Antarctic and a third that is native to the sub-Antarctic but has invaded parts of Antarctica. The researchers, comprised of scientists from the US, UK, Chile, and France, will sample insects from across their geographic range and measure their ability to tolerate environmental stressors (i.e., cold and desiccation), quantify molecular responses to stress, and compare the makeup of the genome and patterns of genetic diversity. This research will contribute to a greater understanding of adaptation to extremes, to an understanding of biodiversity on the planet and to understanding and predicting changes accompanying environmental change. The project will train two graduate students and two postdoctoral researchers, and a K-12 educator will be a member of the field team and will assist with fieldwork and facilitate outreach with schools in the US. The project includes partnership activities with several STEM education organizations to deliver educational content to K-12 and secondary students. This is a project that is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation's Directorate of Geosciences (NSF/GEO) and the National Environment Research Council (NERC) of the United Kingdom (UK) via the NSF/GEO-NERC Lead Agency Agreement. This Agreement allows a single joint US/UK proposal to be submitted and peer-reviewed by the Agency whose investigator has the largest proportion of the budget. Each Agency funds the proportion of the budget and the investigators associated with its own country. UK participation in this project includes deploying scientists as part of the field team, supporting field and sampling logistics at remote Antarctic sites, and genome sequencing, annotation, and analyses. This project focuses on the key physiological adaptations and molecular processes that allow a select few insect species to survive in Antarctica. The focal species are all wingless with limited dispersal capacity, suggesting there is also significant potential to locally adapt to variable environmental conditions across the range of these species. The central hypothesis is that similar molecular mechanisms drive both population-level adaptation to local environmental conditions and macroevolutionary changes across species living in different environments. The specific aims of the project are to 1) Characterize conserved and species-specific adaptations to extreme environments through comparative physiology and transcriptomics, 2) Compare the genome sequences of these species to identify genetic signatures of extreme adaption, and 3) Investigate patterns of diversification and local adaptation across each species? range using population genomics. The project establishes an international collaboration of researchers from the US, UK, Chile, and France with shared interests and complementary expertise in the biology, genomics, and conservation of Antarctic arthropods. The Broader Impacts of the project include training students and partnering with the Living Arts and Science Center to design and implement educational content for K-12 students. 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.
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