Research examines how genetic changes lead to diversity of species

For most, fruit flies are just a nuisance at a summer picnic. To Western University’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,” says Moehring, a biology professor at 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, who is the Canada Research Chair in Functional Genomics, is trying to understand both how these genetic changes can cause a population to diverge into two distinct species and why they don’t try to merge back together. By turning to the humble fruit fly, she 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 that are 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.

Moehring’s 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. She received $225,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Discovery Grants program this morning to advance these efforts.

In all, nearly 100 Western researchers received more than $14.5 million from the Discovery Grants program. Western graduate students and postdoctoral fellows also received more than $2.5 million in scholarships and fellowships announced by NSERC this morning.

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