From CASE Reports, Volume 13,3 (November 1998)

Yale Creates New Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The biology department at Yale University was officially divided into two distinct entities in July of this year, thereby creating a new Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

“We are now acting as a fully emancipated department,” says Gunter Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and chair of the new department. “It’s been very exciting and things are going well so far.”

“Yale had a very strong tradition in ecology,” notes Wagner. “In the last 10 years, however, we lost several good faculty members and were unable to hire new faculty, so the field has suffered at Yale.”

“There has always been a division of ecology and evolutionary biology within the biology department,” explains Wagner. “But the focus has changed over the last 10 years to pure evolution, to support the study of molecular evolution.” Yale’s administration decided that the ecology department needed to be shored up, and that the most efficient way to do that was to separate ecology and evolutionary biology from molecular, cellular. and developmental biology to form two distinct departments. The existing faculty in evolutionary biology comprises the core of the new department, and searches are currently underway to fill several positions.

Collaborations Key to New Strength

The EEB department comprises three subfields, according to Wagner: ecology, evolution, and systematics/organismal biology. The faculty in evolutionary biology is fairly well-established, he notes, adding “Right now we’re recruiting ecologists. We can’t represent all three subfields at the level that is required, so we’re setting up collaborations with other departments within Yale.”

The first established collaboration—with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies—is also the strongest. The first two appointments made within EEB were joint appointments given to ecologists in the School of Forestry, and one search is now open that will be fully joint with Forestry. A second search is also open for a senior faculty position, which will be primarily in the EEB department.

“Once the two ecology positions are filled, we will focus on hiring faculty in systematics/organismal biology,” says Wagner. “We also have strong collaborations with paleobiologists in the geology department and the primatology group in the anthropology department.”

Research conducted within the EEB department is focused in three main areas: 1) molecular evolution, including conservation genetics, and microbial population genetics; 2) mathematical modeling in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology; and 3) systematics or organismal biology.

Teaching and research efforts within the EEB department are augmented by support from the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), which was created with a major donation from Edward Bass in 1990. “YIBS is a unique institute,” says Elizabeth Vrba, director of YIBS and professor of geology and geophysics. “It catalyzes collaborations among many sectors of the campus, inspiring interactive research and teaching.” According to Vrba, it can be difficult for departments to start up collaborations because they use their limited resources for activities within the department. But through support from YIBS, research and teaching centers have been set up that foster interdepartmental collaborations. Two of the main centers supported by the YIBS are ECOSAVE—Molecular Systematics and Conservation Genetics, and the Center for Computational Ecology

Molecular Evolution Research

In conjunction with ECOSAVE, the EEB department is conducting research in molecular evolution and is offering a graduate seminar in the spring of 1999 on molecular approaches to ecology and systematics; a similar course will be offered for undergraduates the following year.

“This is a university-wide facility,” says Gisella Caccone, director of ECOSAVE—Molecular Systematics and Conservation Genetics. “Students from the entire university, not just arts and sciences, can use this laboratory. That includes the School of Forestry, the Peabody Museum, and the School of Epidemiology and Public Health.”

ECOSAVE is a molecular evolution laboratory where undergraduates and graduate students from any discipline can come to learn molecular biology techniques for use in their own research. “We expect students to spend 3 to 6 months here,” explains Caccone. “We will teach them techniques, get their research started in the right direction, and help them get preliminary results. Then they can go back to their own laboratories and write grants to get some funding. It’s difficult to get funding without results, and it’s impossible to get results without the right tools. We can help students get started.”

“This is not a service center,” emphasizes Caccone. “It’s a training facility.” According to Caccone, it is especially important for researchers in conservation genetics to know how to use molecular techniques correctly. “These kinds of studies are borrowing techniques from molecular biology,” she explains, “and they must know the limitations of their tools. Misuse of these techniques could lead to bad decisions in the management of endangered species, with far-reaching consequences.”

This multidisciplinary facility will draw people from different disciplines and backgrounds, all working together in a challenging intellectual atmosphere. “We hope that this environment will foster creativity and further interactions among researchers from different departments,” says Caccone. “After they’ve worked here together, they’ll be able to continue collaborations.”

Computer Modeling Aids Ecosystem Research

Oswald Schmitz, associate professor of population and community ecology, has a joint appointment in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the EEB department. “The fundamental question that we’re interested in is how the composition of an ecosystem is affected by disturbances caused by natural occurrences or human actions,” he says.

Natural ecosystems comprise a variety of species, sometimes numbering in the thousands, and trying to decipher how they’re all interconnected is too complex for field studies, according to Schmitz. “We combine computer modeling with field studies to get a comprehensive view of how disturbances affect natural ecosystem structure and function,” he explains. Schmitz works on computer modeling through the Center for Computational Ecology, one of the YIBS-sponsored centers that fosters interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving.

“When there are hundreds or thousands of species in an ecosystem, it’s really difficult to figure out how a disturbance will affect the relationships among them by conducting field studies,” says Schmitz. “We have a computer program into which we can enter some biological facts about each of the species, creating in essence an artificial world in the computer, which emulates what the real world is like. We can build biologically realistic details into the simulator.”

Once the field system is reconstructed on the computer, the researchers can introduce disruptions and can learn what the outcome of those disruptions is likely to be. “In this way, we can learn very quickly what the outcome of a certain disturbance will be within a given ecosystem,” claims Schmitz. “With just field work, this could take generations.”

According to Schmitz, this level of computational work in ecology has only become possible within the last few years because of advances in computer hardware.

“Another area we’re interested in is the scale of resolution in population studies,” says Schmitz. “Animals have individual behaviors, they make choices. But many researchers have disregarded these behaviors when they’re modeling large populations, because it was generally believed that the individual behaviors didn’t have an effect on the large population.” Schmitz’s group has found, however, that these individual behaviors do have an effect, and that scientists’ ability to predict the effect of a disturbance improves considerably when they take into account the individual behaviors. “We’ve seen a whole host of interesting outcomes when we’ve changed the scale of resolution,” says Schmitz.

His group is interested in the entire continuum of ecological research, from field studies through computer modeling to the application of this work in forest management. “Right now,” he says, “we’re looking at the effect of logging on moose populations in northern Canada. It’s exciting to see our models being tested.”

War of the Microbes: An Ancient Conflict

In the area of molecular evolution, Margaret A. Riley, an associate professor in the EEB department, is working on microbial warfare. “Microbes, mainly bacteria, have been around for over 3.5 billion years—that’s the longest any organism has been on Earth. They are the most diverse organisms on Earth also,” says Riley. “We're studying where that diversity came from, why there are so many different types of bacteria.”

One of the ways that diversity is generated within a population is by competition. “These bacteria engage in warfare,” explains Riley. “They compete against other species, and also within the same species, for resources. In fact, some of the fiercest competition is between closely related species.”

“Bacteria produce toxins designed to kill off only certain other species of bacteria, and then release those toxins into the environment,” notes Riley. “It’s a simple, elegant form of warfare.”

The toxin doesn’t kill the producing bacterium because that bacterium also produces a protein that protects against that specific toxin. Only about 30% of the bacteria in the population are able to produce the toxin, and are therefore protected. The rest of that population may be susceptible to the toxin. In other cases, the bacterium that produces the toxin is susceptible, and dies, but its close relatives do not die.

As well as having a basic interest in the mechanisms that generate diversity, Riley finds the potential practical applications of this work intriguing. “We’re trying to get a better sense of the natural abundance of microbial toxins that could be used in human health applications,” she explains. Many strains of bacteria have developed resistance to conventional antibiotics, and researchers such as Riley are trying to develop new drugs that might augment existing therapies. “Right now we’re working on an antimicrobial agent to help kill the particularly virulent strain of E. coli found in contaminated hamburger, which has caused several deaths.”

To accomodate all of the research and teaching interests within the new department, EEB will be expanding into new quarters. The existing Bingham Laboratory, adjacent to the Peabody Museum, will be replaced by a new building. “This will be an expansion facility that will benefit the Peabody Museum, the School of Forestry, and the geology department, as well as EEB,” explains Wagner. The new building is currently in the design phase; construction will start in the spring of 1999.

"I think this new department provides an exciting opportunity for both Yale and the study of organismal biology in general," concludes Wagner. “We are experiencing a renewed excitement in some long-established disciplines in biology, and this department positions Yale to become a leading force in this field.” — Lisa Christenson, science writer.

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