Nancy Knowlton

Smithsonian Institution


Election Year: 2013
Primary Section: 63, Environmental Sciences and Ecology
Secondary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member

Research Interests

Nancy Knowlton has devoted her research career to understanding the diversity of life in the ocean, particularly on coral reefs. Her work has spanned the fields of behavior, ecology, conservation, systematics, and evolution, studying organisms as diverse as microbes, corals and crustaceans. Work on the responses of reefs to major disturbances illustrated that such ecosystems might have alternative stable states, a finding of significance to reef conservation. The tools of molecular genetics have been regularly employed in her laboratory to distinguish and compare organisms that are difficult to characterize using traditional methods. These approaches have led to the realization that many so-called species are actually large complexes of cryptic species that are reproductively isolated. Work showing that the microscopic algae living in coral tissue differ in their sensitivity to temperature has had important implications for predicting the response of coral reefs to global warming. Her studies of coral evolutionary relationships showed that the majority of traditional families needed to be revised and redefined.  Most recently, she has pioneered the use of DNA bar-coding and next-generation sequencing, coupled with standardized sampling protocols, to determine how many species live on coral reefs.

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