Richard E. Lenski

Michigan State University


Primary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Secondary Section: 63, Environmental Sciences and Ecology
Membership Type: Member (elected 2006)
Photo Credit: Logan Zillmer, Quanta Magazine

Biosketch

Richard Lenski is the John Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University. His research examines the genetic mechanisms and ecological processes responsible for evolution. In an ongoing experiment he started in 1988, he and his team have studied 12 populations of E. coli as they evolve in a controlled environment for over 70,000 generations. This work has generated insights into the dynamics of adaptation by natural selection and genome evolution during periods of innovation and optimization. Samples are stored periodically in freezers, and the cells that lived in different generations can be revived and compared—in effect, allowing time travel.  Lenski served on an NRC committee that reviewed the scientific approaches used in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks.  He has been President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and he helped found the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which brings together biologists, computer scientists, and engineers to illuminate and harness the power of evolution.  He has mentored dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral associates who are on the faculties of universities around the United States and the world.

Research Interests

I am broadly interested in the ecological and genetic processes that underlie evolution. I pursue an experimental approach to evolution by using bacteria to take advantage of their rapid generations and large populations. In one experiment that started 18 years ago, my lab monitors 12 populations of Escherichia coli as they evolve in a defined environment for over 40,000 generations. We characterize the dynamics of adaptation and divergence as well as identify genetic changes responsible for adaptation. In other projects, we have performed experiments with bacteria, viruses, and plasmids to test hypotheses about the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. We have shown the importance of compensatory mutations for the spread of antibiotic resistance. We have studied the evolution of mutation rates, and the mathematical form of interactions among mutations. We provided experimental support for some alternatives to the controversial hypothesis of 'directed' mutation. We examined sociality in the bacterium Myxococcus xanthus and discovered genotypes that 'cheat' by behaviors that enhance their fitness while harming group performance. For the last decade, I have collaborated on multi-disciplinary research with 'digital organisms' - computer programs that self-replicate, mutate, compete, and evolve - that explores the evolution of biological complexity including metabolic networks, sexual reproduction, and ecological communities.

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