The United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) funded collaborative research between Eyal Privman, Assistant Professor, Institute of Evolution, Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology, University of Haifa and DeWayne Shoemaker, a researcher entomologist at the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, Center for Medical, Agricultural, and Veterinary Entomology in Gainesville, FL. Together they are studying the social biology and genomics of fire ants. “The fire ant is a horrible pest,” said Privman. “Millions of dollars are lost by the agricultural industry in damage each year. “
Pictured are DeWayne Shoemaker with Eyal Privman while in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory attending the workshop "Biology and Genomics of Social Insects"
“I was honored to be among the Bergmann Memorial Award winners in 2014,” related Privman. “I’m investing the award receipts into personnel for the laboratory. It will help fund a graduate student who will work with me on analyzing the ants’ genomic sequences.”
Privman acknowledges that this prestigious award is good for his career. As a young researcher, the Bergmann award acknowledges his achievements and he is delighted to have been recognized.
Privman and Shoemaker are studying two different species of fire ants, one red and one black, that are now found in the United States and the phenomenon that these two species hybridize in the USA. They also are using cutting edge techniques to study and compare the genomes and physical traits of fire ants from the United States and from their native ranges in South America. This will help them understand how fire ants adapt to novel environments and how social behavior evolves.
“I do this because I have a scientific interest in understanding things in the world around me,” said Privman when pressed why his is involved in scientific research. “I’m interested in fire ants as social insects, how their genes determine how they evolve and change and the implications for their social structure. In 2010, I switched from studying microbes to fire ants and began to look at the genetic basis for differences in their social behavior. For instance, I was interested in how the workers that are all daughters of the queen work equally hard for the good of the nest. I then looked at a colony that had two queens and observed the workers wondering if there would be a difference in how these daughters worked together. In both cases all the ants put the needs of the colony ahead of their personal interests. I found that fire ants are fascinating organisms in which to study how social behavior evolves. Since then I am analyzing their genomes, looking for the genes responsible for their sociality.”
Privman’s partner DeWayne Shoemaker specializes in population genetics and has built a huge collection of ant samples. Privman uses computational methods to analyze the sequence of the ant’s genome. Said Shoemaker, “I met Eyal when he was a postdoctoral researcher in Switzerland. While visiting the lab, I quickly became aware that he and I had common interests. However one difference, which is a strength of our collaboration, is that while I am a trained evolutionary biologist and entomologist, Eyal has strong computational biology skills. Thus, our interests are similar but our skills are a great combination for a collaborative relationship because we both bring different skills and viewpoints to the project. Success of this project relies on extensive bioinformatics and Eyal is really a perfect fit. Not just anyone can do these analyses. They require someone with his unique expertise.”
Shoemaker continued, “Our project is about understanding how new species arise and how species adapt to changing or novel environments. Fire ants are an excellent model for these questions because of their stunning success as invaders and the well-documented genetic and ecological changes that have taken place in the invasive populations. Two different species were introduced into the USA last century from their native South America. Interestingly, the two species hybridize in the USA but not in their native range, which provides an ideal scenario for trying to understand the genetics of species differences. Our studies will provide unprecedented empirical evidence to test theoretical models and to reveal the molecular mechanisms of reproductive isolation and adaptation. Also, our studies will reveal key adaptive genes in invasive ant populations, potentially lead to new insights into the biology of ant invasions as well as more general understanding of social biology and evolution.”