Colorado State University Biology Professors Win Prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award

Two Colorado State University biology professors have received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from the National Science Foundation. The honor is considered one of the most prestigious for up-and-coming researchers in science and engineering.

Associate Professor Cameron Ghalambor is the recipient of a five-year CAREER grant that totals nearly $884,000. The grant will support Ghalambor’s research into the role of phenotypic plasticity in adaptive evolution.

Assistant Professor Dhruba Naug was awarded a five-year, $650,000 grant to understand the role of social structure on disease transmission.

Ghalambor’s research centers on a long-standing question: What role if any does variation induced by the environment play in adaptive genetic change? While it has long been recognized that the same individual can develop into a variety of physical appearances, depending on the environmental context – a phenomenon called “phenotypic plasticity”, biologists have historically dismissed this source of variation because it lacks a genetic basis. Resolving such nature (genes) v. nurture (environment) arguments has implications for how we treat diseases to understanding human behavior.

Ghalambor’s CAREER grant will focus on Trinidadian guppies, who will serve as a model to study the role of phenotypic plasticity in the evolutionary process in the natural environment. Guppy populations in Trinidad have previously been shown to rapidly evolve genetically based differences in color patterns, behaviors and morphology in response to predators. Ghalambor will track how the presence of predators induces plastic changes in the physical appearance of guppies and which genes are turned on and off during development. Over a five-year period he will use laboratory breeding experiments combined with field measurements of fish transplanted to streams without predators to examine whether the initial response of the guppies mimic adaptive evolutionary responses.

Naug is working on the idea that social structure plays a critical role in influencing the transmission of a disease within a group, making it the central arena of the host-parasite arms race. Using the honeybee colony as a model social system, Naug will examine the underlying behavioral and neural mechanisms that determine the interaction pattern among individuals and the structural and functional properties of the resulting social network within the colony. The project will next examine how a disease can lead to physiological changes in the host, resulting in behavioral alterations in the individual and modifying the social structure of the group – outcomes that may benefit either the host or the parasite. Understanding the influence of social structure on transmission dynamics is important both from the broad standpoint of behavioral and disease ecology as well as for the recent concern about the decline in honeybee populations.

Ghalambor earned his doctoral degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology from the University of Montana in 1998 and has been at Colorado State since 2003. Naug earned his doctorate in Behavioral Ecology from the Indian Institute of Science in 1999 and has been at CSU since 2005.