HARTFORD, CT, October 3, 2013 – Research Associate Professor Terri Williams has been awarded a three-year, $488,877 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate segmentation in arthropods, a familiar group of animals that includes flies, shrimp, crabs and spiders.
Williams’ research will be done in collaboration with professors Lisa Nagy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, and Ariel Chipman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, as well as Trinity Computer Science Professor Ralph Morelli. Students will have the opportunity for international exchange between the schools’ labs and live exchanges of ideas through web-based meetings.
L-R: Terri Williams, Sarah So Young Kim '14, and
Lorena Lazo de la Vega '14
Their project, which was funded as of September 15, is part of a new program at NSF called International Collaborations in Organismal Biology between U.S. and Israeli investigators.
A member of the Trinity faculty since 2010, Williams is a research professor who works with undergraduates, especially during the summer, to conduct basic lab research. She holds a B.S. from Duke University and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington.
Arthropods are a large and diverse group of animals whose basic body plan consists of a number of repeated segments. With her students, Williams explores how embryonic development of segments might have been modified during evolution to give rise to the many kinds of arthropods living today.
“Most arthropods make their segments by adding them from a posterior region called the ‘growth zone’,” said Williams. “A common set of genes has recently been hypothesized to control the growth zone in diverse arthropods. However, the cell behaviors that normally elongate the growth zone are elusive. Without understanding the cell behaviors that normally elongate the growth zone, it is impossible to explain the role of genes in controlling segmentation.”
This NSF grant will allow the professors to synthesize two approaches to understanding growth zone elongation and segmentation. The first is to make direct measures of cell behaviors and gene function in three arthropod species: a crustacean and two insects, explained Williams.
The data will then be fed into computational models of segment formation. Lab results will keep the computer models realistic, while computer models will allow for the rapid exploration of relationships between genes and cell behaviors, thus informing new lab work, said Williams.
Williams noted that the project “will be the first to bring computational modeling to a fine-grain analysis of arthropod sequential segmentation” and may, ultimately, help answer a major question in the field: Is there some deep evolutionary connection to how segments are made in animals as diverse as beetles and mice?