NSF CAREER grant supports entomologist in study of sterility mechanisms in bees

July 13, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A grant of more than $1 million from the National Science Foundation will support a researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences in a study of mechanisms that induce sterility in social insects.

Etya Amsalem, assistant professor of entomology, received the award from the prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, which supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in integrating research and education.

Amsalem will lead a project examining the behavioral, chemical and genetic regulators of worker sterility at different scales within a species of bumble bee, with an eye toward understanding how social insect reproduction is regulated.

Reproduction in social insect societies is dominated by one or a few females and is an example of the most fascinating phenomena in social behavior, Amsalem explained.

"Such an extreme reproductive skew is maintained by sophisticated behavioral and chemical mechanisms and requires the transfer of genetic traits, which encode behaviors that seemingly sabotage these traits' own inheritance, posing a significant challenge to Darwin’s natural selection theory," she said.

Bumble bee gathering pollen

Focusing on the reproductive mechanisms of the bumble bee species Bombus impatiens, researchers in the Amsalem laboratory will seek to uncover the interplay between dominance behavior and chemical signaling in regulating reproduction.

IMAGE: Erin Treanore

Focusing on the reproductive mechanisms used by a sole queen, nestmate workers and brood in the bumble bee Bombus impatiens, the team will characterize the synergetic effects of behavioral and chemical signaling regulating reproduction and investigate the importance of social context to these regulatory mechanisms. Researchers also will seek to unveil the genetic regulation of workers' brain gene expression responses to cues regulating reproduction.

"These efforts will uncover the interplay between dominance behavior and chemical signaling in regulating reproduction and the genetic basis of sterility-inducing pheromones," Amsalem said. "These discoveries will lay the groundwork for future studies of the mechanisms underlying worker sterility, the evolution of sociality and social communication."

An educational component of the project, Amsalem noted, is designed to increase diversity in science education by targeting underrepresented groups at different stages of development.

"We will accomplish this by developing an annual program to increase networking and exposure to science in underserved populations of undergraduate students in Pennsylvania and by developing an insect communication module for the Upward Bound Program that exposes promising, low-income and first-generation high school students to college experiences," she said. "We also plan to use the qualities of bumble bees as key worldwide pollinators to increase awareness among K-8 students of the importance of pollinators."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 13, 2020