The National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Research at Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) Division, has awarded a biology professor at California State University, Long Beach a three-year, $200,000 grant for a project that will study the geographical patterns of genetic variation in the western fence lizard.
Through the project, titled "Evolutionary Significance of Mitochondrial DNA Clade Boundaries," Professor James Archie is hoping to determine whether environmental or historical factors are responsible for the origin and maintenance of the geographic separation or whether separation is due to genetic factors within the lizards themselves.
"In studying the western fence lizard, my students and I have found that different genetic groups, or clades, of the lizard are isolated geographically, creating boundaries between different genotypes. Yet, there are no physical obstacles to prevent the dispersal and flow of genes between the various genetic groups," explained Archie, an 11-year faculty member at Cal State Long Beach
"It's not known why this isolation or separation occurs, but I'm hoping to find an explanation for the presence of these boundaries," he continued. "Also, since these boundaries have been discovered in many other species, I'm hoping to be able to identify what factors cause these boundaries to exist not only for this species but for other species in general."
The research will investigate the evolutionary significance of the clade boundaries. The findings have the potential to make a substantial contribution in the area of evolutionary biology of speciation. In addition, Archie noted that the application of the research to conservation biology could also be important.
The western fence lizard (commonly called the blue-bellied lizard) is one of the most common vertebrates in the western United States and has a complex pattern of geographical separation of its various genetic groups. It also has a high degree of variability in size, coloration and other features that are usually considered important in differentiating between valid species.
"There are 11 different genetic groups of the western fence lizard in California, and since there are so many groups, there are also a lot of boundaries between these groups," Archie pointed out. "Because of that, the lizard is a really good model system to look at the causes of maintenance of these boundaries."
In the field, Archie and his students use extended fishing poles to capture lizards unharmed by putting a small noose around their heads. After being caught, the lizards are measured, scanned with a computer scanner or photographed. A piece of the tail is also taken to permit genetic analysis. Then, the lizards are released.
"(Cal State Long Beach) has an impressive record in terms of undergraduate training, (and) this is one of the more promising RUI proposals I have seen," wrote one NSF reviewer. "The principle investigator will be involving undergraduate and masters students in a wide range of biological activities, from field work to laboratory work to data analysis."
The NSF funds will be used to support students assisting with the research. The money will also be used for travel expenses as well as equipment and supplies.
The project will take the Archie and his students throughout California, Nevada, western Utah and further north into Oregon and Idaho for fieldwork. The professor also said that participating students would be able to attend academic conferences.
"One of the best facets of this project is the involvement of students. It is a real integrated program," Archie said. "They do fieldwork and then turnaround and go back into the lab. The combined field and laboratory experience is tremendous for students as a learning paradigm."
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