WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 27, 2015—The National Science Foundation has awarded two Williams College professors $244,117 to study inter-species dependencies called “mutualisms.” The project brings together the disciplines of chemistry and biology in a study of how different species interact with and affect one another.
Biology Professor Manuel Morales, whose research focuses on ecology and ecosystems, has studied mutualisms for many years. As the principal investigator in this project, he will lead fieldwork and analysis on a three-species system involving an aphid-like insect called a treehopper, the tall goldenrod plant on which they feed, and the ants that protect them from predators.
“Like many mutualisms, the one between the treehopper and the ant involves the exchange of a resource reward for protection from predators,” says Morales. “We want to know what the long-term affects are on the plant at the center of this mutualism. How long does it take the goldenrod to recover after treehoppers have fed on it, and what can we learn from how treehopper populations disperse over a field of goldenrod?”
Chemistry Professor Enrique Peacock-Lopez has years of experience in dynamic modeling. He will apply his skills in that field to the mutualistic system in Morales’ fieldwork. “The goal is to keep updating the models with information from the field,” says Peacock-Lopez. “We can learn a great deal from models, but only if they actually predict the outcomes we see in the field—which many models do not.”
The short-term effect of mutualism is to increase the population of the plant-eating insect. That can lead to over-exploitation of the plants in the long-term, which will ultimately harm the insects’ ability to feed. “Conventional wisdom is that mutualisms stabilize ecosystems,” says Morales. “Our research suggests that in some cases, the opposite may be true.”
The grant covers a three-year period and includes funding for 13 undergraduate research assistants, who will help with the mathematical models as well as in the field. “It is an incredible opportunity for the students to be able to interact among the disciplines,” says Peacock-Lopez. “That can only happen at a college as small and integrated as Williams.”
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.