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Erik Andersen receives award to study the evolution of behavior

Human Frontier Science Program grant provides more than $1 million in support
Erik Andersen

Erik C. Andersen, a molecular geneticist at Northwestern University, has received a Human Frontier Science Program grant to study the evolution of behavior.

Andersen will lead an international team to study the repeatability of the genetic mechanisms underlying behavioral evolution. He will receive $350,000 per year for three years from the Human Frontier Science Program Organization to support these efforts.

“This support gives us a rare opportunity to study how evolution works, especially on behaviors,” said Andersen, an assistant professor of molecular biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Andersen’s team will focus on the conundrum of why many completely different species seem to exhibit similar behaviors. Some related examples from nature include how different species of Hawaiian spiders that spin similar web architectures or diverse anoles lizard species that bob their heads with the same styles and speeds.

The researchers will study three species of the nematode genus Caenorhabditis. These transparent roundworms offer a unique experimental platform to connect behavioral differences to genetic differences. The team will use genotype data and imaging of behaviors to create a map to identify shared gene variants that are most important evolutionarily.

“Our results will provide the first systematic glimpse into the genomic ‘knobs’ that control behaviors at the single-variant level across species,” Andersen said. “We also will gain insights into the repeatability of the evolution of behaviors.”

Andersen’s collaborators on the project are Andre Brown of Imperial College London and Kathryn Hodgins of Monash University in Australia.