John Franklin Crowell Professor of Biology

(919) 684-2793

Fred Nijhout is broadly interested in developmental physiology and in the interactions between development and evolution. He has several lines of research ongoing in his laboratory that on the surface may look independent from one another, but all share a conceptual interest in understanding how complex traits arise through, and are affected by, the interaction of genetic and environmental factors.

1) The control of polyphenic development in insects. This work attempts to understand how the insect developmental hormones, ecdysone and juvenile hormone, act to control alternative developmental pathways within a single individual. His studies and those of his students have dealt with the control of sequential polyphenism in metamorphosis, of alternate polyphenisms in caste determination of social insects and the many seasonal forms of insects.

2) The regulation of organ and body size in insects. Ongoing research deals with the mechanism by which insects asses their body size and stop growing when they have achieved a characteristic size. Other studies deal with the control of growth and size of imaginal disks. This work is revealing that the control of body and organ size does not reside in any specific cellular or molecular mechanism but that it is a systems property in which cellular, physiological and environmental signals all contribute in inextricable ways to produce the final phenotype.

3) The development and evolution of color patterns in Lepidoptera. Ongoing research attempts to elucidate the evolution of mimicry using genetic and genomic approaches.

4) The development, genetics and evolution of complex traits. Complex traits are those whose variation is affected by many genes and environmental factors and whose inheritance does not follow Mendel’s laws. In practice this involves understanding how genetic and developmental networks operate when there is allelic variation in their genes. This work attempts to reconstruct complex traits through mathematical models of the genetic and developmental processes by which they originate, and uses these models to study the effects of mutation and selection. Currently metabolic networks (e.g. folate metabolism) are being used to develop a deeper understanding of the functional relationships between genetic variation and trait variation, and of the mechanisms by which genetic and environmental variables interact to produce phenotypes.

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