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Texas A&M University biologists Wanhe Li, Jeff Jones and Kira Delmore smile for the camera within the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building
(From left:) Texas A&M University biologists Dr. Wanhe Li, Dr. Jeff Jones and Dr. Kira Delmore are working to understand fundamental aspects of biology and evolution and how these contribute to human health and disease. | Image: Chris Jarvis, Arts & Sciences Marketing & Communications

Three faculty members in the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University have been recognized for their sustained research potential with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) to support their research programs related to various aspects of animal behavior, including genetic control of biological clocks and migratory behavior. These research areas have broad implications for understanding fundamental aspects of biology and evolution and how these contribute to human health and disease.

Dr. Kira Delmore, an assistant professor who joined the Texas A&M Biology faculty in 2018, received a $1.9 million grant to support her laboratory’s work at the intersection of ecology, evolution and genomics to investigate the genetic basis of speciation and variation in behavioral traits using natural hybrid zones, molecular, field and bioinformatics techniques.

Dr. Jeff Jones, an assistant professor and member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 2021, received a $1.9 million grant to support his laboratory’s ongoing work to better understand the central circadian pacemaker, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and how related input is encoded by target neurons within the body to generate diverse behavioral rhythms that not only peak at different times of day but also factor into genetic processes and a host of biological-clock-related diseases, from sleep and mood disorders to cancer.

Dr. Wanhe Li, an assistant professor and a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar in Cancer Research who joined the Texas A&M Biology faculty in 2022, received a $1.9 million grant to support her research addressing interactions between social isolation and sleep regulation in fruit flies. This work builds on Li's groundbreaking findings that social isolation results in elevated food consumption, reduced interaction and increasing levels of loneliness — a public health crisis that has reached epidemic status in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Established in 2015, the MIRA Program is intended to better fund science by better supporting investigators and their overall research programs through single, unified grants that improve their funding stability, versus multiple smaller awards. Each of the three’s projects will build on their previous success as members of the Texas A&M Center for Biological Clocks Research and the wealth of technical and intellectual resources available to them within the CBCR and the broader Department of Biology.

"The early career success of these three faculty is a recognition of their exceptional potential," said Dr. Alex C. Keene, professor and head of Texas A&M Biology. "I have no doubt that each of their research programs will make breakthrough discoveries that advance our understanding of animal behavior. They represent the brightest of futures for the Department of Biology and the life sciences at Texas A&M."

About Dr. Kira Delmore

Texas A&M biologist Kira Delmore
Dr. Kira Delmore

Delmore earned her Ph.D. in zoology at the University of British Columbia in 2015 and completed three years of postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in northern Germany before beginning her independent academic career at Texas A&M in 2018. Her research is motivated by understanding where diversity originated in the natural world and how it is maintained.

Delmore notes that there is an incredible diversity of behaviors in the natural world, from the waggle dance of honeybees to the tameness of dogs. She plans to use her MIRA funding to track down genes that underlie migratory behavior in birds and their role in speciation, the process through which one species becomes two.

"Scientists have known for decades that there is a genetic basis to many of these diverse behaviors — many of which contribute to speciation," Delmore said. "However, they have been largely unable to identify the specific genes that underlie these behaviors and understand the molecular mechanisms that translate variation at these genes to behaviors we see every day. We arguably know even less about the genetic basis of speciation, with early work on this topic focusing on model organisms that completed speciation millions of years ago and are maintained in the lab, as opposed to the ecological setting where speciation actually occurs."

Delmore and her team are using natural hybrid zones — areas where populations that differ in one or more traits meet, mate and produce offspring of mixed ancestry — to gain insight into the genetics of both behavior and speciation. Much of their work focuses on seasonal migration, which requires the coordinated action of many traits, from orientation and timing to the shape of an individual’s wings, in order to be successful.

"Many migratory traits are thought to have a genetic basis, but genes underlying these traits are largely unknown, along with information on how they are synchronized at the genetic level," Delmore said. "Hybrid zones occur between populations that breed next to one another each summer but take different routes on their way south each year. Their hybrids exhibit intermediate traits and survive at lower rates as a result, helping maintain species boundaries."

Delmore and her team have designed an innovative, multi-pronged approach to study the genetics of seasonal migration and its contribution to speciation. They track hundreds of birds on migration each year and match these data with several different sources of molecular data. Their findings will provide unprecedented insight into genetic mechanisms that shape seasonal behavior and speciation and address several fundamental questions in evolutionary genetics.

About Dr. Jeff Jones

Texas A&M biologist Jeff Jones
Dr. Jeff Jones

Jones received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Vanderbilt University in 2015. He completed two postdoctoral stints — one at Stanford University (2015-16), where he learned in vivo imaging, and another at Washington University in St. Louis (2016-21), where he studied the inputs to and outputs from the SCN that together generate circadian rhythms in behavior and physiology — prior to beginning his independent academic career at Texas A&M in 2021. His SCN-focused research seeks to investigate the fundamental neuroscience question of how genes, neurons and circuits interact to influence behavior and physiology and to better understand how their disruption contributes to disorders and disease.

Jones notes that animals have evolved circadian, or near-24-hour rhythms to anticipate and adjust their behavior to daily opportunities and challenges, such as mating, food availability, and predation. These behavioral rhythms are synchronized to the solar day by the SCN and related neurons that exhibit daily rhythms in their firing rate and clock gene expression that communicate circadian time to the rest of the brain and body. However, he adds that we do not know how SCN signals interact with the molecular and neuronal clocks involved in generating circadian outputs with the help of neural systems located throughout the body, nor how such responses are affected by disruptions, from shift work to disease, and how they differ between diurnal and nocturnal animals.

“Rhythmic behaviors and physiological processes are temporally organized by our central circadian pacemaker, the SCN, to occur at the optimal time of day,” Jones said. “Disruption of this precise organization due to disease or lifestyle (shift work or artificial light at night) is associated with negative health outcomes, including metabolic, cardiovascular and mood disorders. Our research program aims to determine the interaction between the genes, neurons and circuits that time rhythmic behaviors, which will provide a foundation for the investigation of the mechanisms of circadian dysfunction that both lead to and are a symptom of disease.”

The Jones Lab plans to use multi-level analysis at the molecular, circuit and behavioral levels including targeted genomic editing of clock genes as well as in vivo and ex vivo imaging of rhythmic neurons and machine learning analysis of behavior to explore circadian output circuitry in two complementary species, the nocturnal laboratory mouse and the diurnal African striped mouse, whose SCN molecular and neuronal activity rhythms curiously peak at similar times.

“Identifying the genes, neurons and circuits that regulate the timing of behavior in both laboratory mice and striped mice will provide a novel framework for understanding the biological basis of chronotype in humans and the etiology of circadian rhythm sleep disorders,” Jones said. ”The discoveries we will make through our research program can generalize beyond circadian biology to reveal fundamental mechanisms linking genes and circuits to behavior.

About Dr. Wanhe Li

Texas A&M biologist Wanhe Li
Dr. Wanhe Li

Li received her Ph.D. from the joint program of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Stony Brook University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she investigated genetic and molecular mechanisms of learning, memory and age-related memory decline. She completed postdoctoral study at Rockefeller University and subsequently as a research associate there, she developed a framework to study the perception of social isolation and the molecular etiology of sleep loss in fruit flies prior to leading her independent laboratory at Texas A&M in 2022. The goal of her research program is to uncover mechanistic links between emotional states, biological timing, sleep and development of chronic diseases using interdisciplinary approaches.

Chronic social isolation and loneliness have profound impacts on public health, Li notes, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic helped to bring a long-standing call for animal models focused on loneliness back to the research forefront. Moreover, earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released the first-ever Surgeon General's Advisory highlighting the destructive effects of loneliness across the country and the detrimental health impacts on both individuals and communities.

“Prolonged isolation from social environments profoundly affects animal behavior, physiology and wellness, expressed during the COVID-19 pandemic as increased levels of sleep disruption and eating disorders, among other population-wide behavioral problems,” Li said. “However, the underlying mechanisms through which chronic social isolation is processed and impacts health-critical behavior are unknown. Social isolation, by its very nature, is a continuous and prolonged process, yet how the animal brain constructs an evolving state recording this process remains an outstanding problem in understanding social isolation biologically. To address this challenge, my laboratory established an animal model and discovered the molecular and cellular differences between physiological states associated with acute and chronic social isolation.”

Li’s MIRA project will employ multidisciplinary approaches, including genetics and genomics as well as behavioral, imaging and metabolomics to investigate the mechanisms by which chronic social isolation is processed on long-time scales and impacts health-critical behaviors at the molecular and cellular levels. She anticipates that her related findings will launch and sustain an impactful research program, as noted by the NIH Center for Scientific Review Special Emphasis Panel in its assessment of her proposal.

“The proposed work is critical, as there is an urgent, unmet need to understand the biological underpinnings of social isolation,” Li said. “The comprehensive program will lead to novel, fundamental insights into cellular, molecular and metabolic pathways that are disrupted under chronic social isolation — knowledge that can potentially inform treatments of chronic isolation-induced negative health consequences. My hope is this work ultimately will provide a deeper understanding of the biology of social isolation and potential interventions/treatments to alleviate the suffering and diseases caused by chronic social isolation.”

Learn more about the MIRA program or current research underway in the Texas A&M Center for Biological Clocks Research.

About Research At Texas A&M University

As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including in science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M generated annual expenditures of more than $1.153 billion in fiscal year 2022. Texas A&M ranked 16th in the most recent National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey based on annual expenditures of more than $1.148 billion in fiscal year 2021. Texas A&M’s research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting, in many cases, in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit Research@Texas A&M.