Jul. 10, 2018

A Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Researcher and her colleagues have been awarded a prestigious $2 million grant, funded jointly by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) for a study titled “Are parasites in complex communities more evolvable?" Dr. Hadas Hawlena is a researcher from the Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental and Energy Research, one of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR), at BGU's Sede Boqer campus.

It is only in the past three years that the US National Science Foundation has made it possible for Israeli researchers to submit a proposal to the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease call with their US colleagues. Hawlena will be working with Prof. Luis Zaman of the University of Michigan (PIs). She will also be working with the esteemed Prof. Richard Lenski, a MacArthur fellow and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences at Michigan State University; Prof. Jeffrey Barrick of The University of Texas at Austin; and Prof. Shimon Harrus of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (co-PIs).

Their proposal tied for the highest score with one other out of 55 submitted proposals.

“I am excited to launch this ambitious research project, which I believe will contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the evolution rate of bacteria and viruses, including agents of infectious diseases," says Hawlena.

“Despite the long odds, we won this prestigious grant and I encourage other Israeli researchers to apply with their US colleagues," she adds.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent US federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..."

The U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) promotes scientific relations between the U.S. and Israel by supporting collaborative research projects in a wide area of basic and applied scientific fields, for peaceful and non-profit purposes. Founded in 1972 by an agreement between the United States and Israel, the BSF is an independent body, directed by a board of governors consisting of five American and five Israeli members.

An abstract of Hawlena and colleagues' proposal:

Populations adapt by natural selection when variation allows a better “fit" to an individual's environment (hence the phrase survival of the fittest). One fascinating outcome of evolution is that some populations evolve to be better at generating variation. This so-called evolution of evolvability is broadly intriguing because it is simultaneously intuitive (e.g., evolution acting to improve its own efficiency) and challenging to explain (e.g., evolvability does not directly increase an individual's reproductive success). Based on computational simulations, it has become clear that evolvability is able to evolve in response to unpredictable and constantly changing environments. This proposal aims to explore the way that natural host-parasite communities, which are blanketed with many species of hosts and different interacting parasites, create such unpredictable environments selecting for evolvability. By combining computational instances of host-parasite coevolution with field and laboratory experiments using a natural system in the Israeli Negev Dunes (i.e., Bartonella bacteria and their rodent hosts), this proposed work will begin uncovering the aspects of parasite ecology that promote or hinder the evolution of evolvability. Understanding what selects for more evolvable parasites will have broad implications in our ability to identify potential emerging diseases, and provide strategies to potentially reduce selection on parasite evolvability in nature.