With support from a $2 million John Templeton Foundation National Sciences grant, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan will spearhead a multi-institution evolutionary biology research project over the next three years.
The project, titled “Agency in Living Systems: How Organisms Actively Generate Adaptation, Resilience and Innovation at Multiple Levels of Organization,” developed from Sultan’s research on how individual organisms respond to their environments. Sultan and her Wesleyan research group study this question through experiments with the common plant Polygonum.
Sultan’s previous findings have shown that genetically identical Polygonum plants can develop very differently depending on their growth conditions, allowing adaptive adjustments by individual plants without any genetic change. Because these adjustments are made actively by plants, rather than pre-scripted by their DNA sequence, this insight poses challenges to prevailing conceptual models for development and evolutionary adaptation.
“Scientists are particularly keen to understand these types of induced changes because they may help populations to very rapidly adapt to novel environmental stresses caused by human activities,” Sultan said.
The Templeton Foundation grant supports a consortium to investigate more broadly this property of biological agency—the ways in which active, real-time responses by living organisms influence the organisms’ own features. Sultan and her international team of co-investigators will focus on the active response mechanisms produced by evolution that grant organisms a degree of agency in shaping their own development, behavior, and subsequent evolution.
“New findings over the past decade about gene expression, development, the nature of inheritance, and the basis of adaptation, have led developmental and evolutionary biologists to re-examine some fundamental and long-standing ideas,” Sultan said. “The concept of agency may provide a unifying framework at a time when many scientists are seeking to update and expand those ideas. This project gives us the opportunity to help move the field forward and hopefully contribute to a more nuanced understanding of organisms.”