My research program centres on the genetics of complex trait evolution. Complex traits (e.g. lifespan, body size, disease resistance, and behaviour) are unified by two common characteristics: i) they are the product of multiple genes, and ii) their phenotype is often significantly influenced by changes in the environment1. Understanding the ontogeny, manifestation, and evolution of complex traits is a central focus in evolutionary genetics. My work focuses on behaviour, because behavioural traits have enormous potential to contribute to our knowledge of complex trait evolution. Behaviour is intriguing since abilities: i) require precise coordination of proteins, enzymes, neurons, and muscles, ii) are affected by constant input and processing of information from the environment, and iii) are extremely labile and can be modified at each expression.
Research Area: Neuroscience and Behaviour, Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Conservation Ecology and Evolution
A detailed understanding of the evolution and ecology of behaviour can be gained by investigating the underlying genes. Studies of genes are important because they can integrate both mechanistic and evolutionary insights (Boake et al. 2002, Robinson 1999) and they can allow for precise manipulation and measurement of behaviours in the lab and in the wild.
Given the extensive conservation of gene function across diverse evolutionary lineages, it is now becoming possible to explore particular genes in a wide variety of organisms (e.g. a candidate gene approach).
I focus primarily on the rover/sitter foraging polymorphism found in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster and discovered by Marla Sokolowski in the early 1980s. Rovers eat less but move more than sitters during foraging (Kaun et al. 2007a) and they are more likely to explore new food patches than sitters (Sokolowski et al. 1984). These behavioural differences arise mainly from allelic variation in foraging (for), which encodes a cGMP-dependent protein kinase (PKG) (Osborne et al. 1997). Rovers (forR) have higher RNA transcript levels and PKG activity levels than sitters (fors). This polymorphism has now become a classic model system in behaviour genetics.
My research explores: i) the evolutionary link between foraging behaviour and cGMP-dependent protein kinase (Fitzpatrick & Sokolowski 2004), ii) identifying additional genes that influence foraging behaviour (Fitzpatrick et al., in prep), and iii) the maintenance of the rover/sitter polymorphism by frequency-dependent selection (Fitzpatrick et al.,2007).
I have broad interests in behavioural ecology, evolutionary genetics, quantitative genetics, phylogenetics, and genomics. Although my lab will primarily utilize the Drosophila model system, we will also continue to dabble in other organisms such as crickets. Topics of particular interest include foraging behaviour, sexual selection, and aggression. For example, some peripheral interests include how pleiotropic effects can influence the evolution of genes affecting sexual selection (Fitzpatrick 2004) and whether mating influences aggression in field crickets.