CAREER: Evolution of Locust Swarms and Phenotypic Plasticity in Grasshoppers
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Locusts are grasshoppers that can form enormous migrating swarms. They are major pests of agriculture throughout the world, causing millions of dollars in losses. In nature, locusts exist as one of two forms depending on local population density. At low density, locusts are inconspicuously colored and avoid each other, but at high density, they transform into conspicuously colored individuals that are attracted to each other. When the high-density condition persists, they eventually form swarms. This ability to change in response to density is known as density-dependent phenotypic plasticity. However, it is poorly understood how this phenomenon has evolved, why locusts swarm, and what makes them different from typical grasshoppers. Therefore, the main goal of this Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) project is to understand why some grasshoppers respond to crowding by forming swarms and others do not. The project aims to unravel the genetic basis of locust swarming using behavioral experiments and cutting-edge molecular techniques. The core of this CAREER project is the seamless integration of research and education from K-12 to undergraduate and graduate students. The partnership with local public schools, enhanced by service-learning, will provide unique and relevant science education opportunities for both elementary school and college-level students. Specifically, the CAREER-enabled course development will fill a much-needed void in providing authentic research experience to the biology curriculum at the University of Central Florida. One primary goal of the broader impact activities will be to broaden participation of underrepresented minority students, particularly those who seek careers in science after transferring from community colleges. Graduate students supported by this project will be exposed to high-impact research with international and interdisciplinary opportunities. The broad nature of this project will establish a strong and long-lasting international network for future collaborations.