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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:University of Arkansas
  • Erica Westerman
  • (479) 575-5348
Award Date:01/03/2020
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 801,104
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 196,714
  • FY 2020=$196,714
Start Date:03/01/2020
End Date:02/29/2024
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.074
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:The Genetics and Neural Mechanisms of Preference Learning
Federal Award ID Number:1937201
DUNS ID:191429745
Parent DUNS ID:055600001
Program:Animal Behavior
Program Officer:
  • Jodie Jawor
  • (703) 292-7887

Awardee Location

Street:1125 W. Maple Street
Awardee Cong. District:03

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:University of Arkansas
Street:210 Administration Building
Cong. District:03

Abstract at Time of Award

Picking a mate is one of the most important decisions an animal makes during its lifetime, as mate selection has a large impact on the number of offspring, offspring genotype, and offspring success. For these reasons the mate selection process has featured prominently in scientific research, and has been used as a scaffold for enhancing understanding of sensory processing, behavioral plasticity, decision making, and reproductive isolation. Mate preferences associated with the mate selection process can either be learned, or innate and genetically determined. Learned preferences are prevalent in animal taxa yet remain poorly understood: neither neurological mechanisms driving them nor genes underlying these processes have been identified. However, recent description of the genome of the butterfly Bicyclus anynana is facilitating the identification of genes and neural mechanisms underlying preference learning. Using this butterfly, the researcher has identified a suite of genes associated with preference learning. The researcher will utilize genome editing to determine which of these genes influence preference learning. They will then assess how sensory processing influences preference learning, thus connecting genes, neural processes, and mate selection behavior. To enhance public understanding of visual communication while raising awareness of the local pollinator community, the researcher will utilize the charismatic nature of butterflies to engage hundreds of students of all ages in a Citizen Science Research project. This project examines the seasonality and behavior of the butterfly community of Northwest Arkansas in collaboration with a local non-profit botanical garden, and will provide a baseline for future research on pollinator community health. Due to the potential for high learning error rates, learned mate preferences were historically thought to be substantially less common than genetically determined mate preferences, particularly in species without parental care, where young are not guaranteed regular contact with conspecifics during development. However, recent research has shown that learned preferences are far more common than previously thought. Genetically determined learning biases would reduce learning error rates, and may help explain the prevalence of mate preference learning in animals. However, this hypothesis has yet to be tested, as genes for mate preference learning, and the neurological mechanisms underlying mate preference learning, have yet to be identified. In this project, the researcher will utilize an integrative approach combining genome editing, transcriptomics, behavioral manipulation, and electrophysiology to identify mate preference learning genes, describe the role of these genes in the mate preference learning process, and identify the neural pathways associated with positive and negative memory formation, using the butterfly Bicyclus anynana. This research will fill gaps in knowledge of mate preference development, and will facilitate future research on behavioral plasticity, genetics of sensory biases, and evolutionary theory concerning the role of learning in ornament diversity and speciation. Furthermore, the researcher will collaborate with a local non-profit botanical garden to engage the public in a field-based Citizen Science Research project examining the seasonality of, and the effect of the sensory environment on, the local butterfly community. This project will engage hundreds of community members in the study of visual communication. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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