In a large, computer-driven room on the UO campus, genetics researchers Bill Bradshaw and Chris Holzapfel can replicate the temperature, humidity, and day-night cycle of any place on the planet. “This is New Jersey in the summer,” Holzapfel says, walking into the humid, windowless room.
Tucked inside Pacific Hall at the Bradshaw-Holzapfel laboratory are three more controlled-environment rooms, each programmed to simulate a natural environment—from the tropics to the polar regions—and to give UO researchers an opportunity to understand how genetics actually works in the real world.
This is where researchers at the UO’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution raise mosquitoes and tend to the fascinating plants that house them.
For more than 30 years, educators, researchers, colleagues, and life partners—Bradshaw and Holzapfel—have used advanced genetic and genomic tools to study a single organism known as Wyeomyia smithii. This small, black mosquito develops within the water-filled leaves of the predatory carnivorous purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, which thrives in wet bogs and swamps in the eastern part of the US and in Canada.
With the mosquito at the epicenter of their research, scholars at the Bradshaw-Holzapfel lab have made a number of landmark discoveries, including isolating the genes that control biting in mosquitoes. This discovery is an essential step in the eradication of all blood-borne diseases carried by mosquitoes, including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. Theirs was the first lab to make the groundbreaking discovery that recent rapid climate change has penetrated to the level of the gene. And they have also recently determined the genetic connections between the seasonal timer that orchestrates how the world looks around us and the daily circadian clock that integrates metabolism and behavior in all organisms.
Passionate about their research, devoted to helping future students achieve their life goals, and committed to building what they’ve called “a community of scholars” at the University of Oregon, Holzapfel and Bradshaw are giving back to the institution that has supported the greater part of their life’s work, research they began decades ago while they were postdoctoral fellows at Harvard University.
Their gift will create the Bradshaw and Holzapfel Research Professorship in Transformational Science and Mathematics. This endowed professorship will rotate across the biology, chemistry and biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer and information science departments.
“Each department gets to nominate one person and the department heads vote on it,” Bradshaw says. “Each department has a vested interest in who gets that award, which means they will read those applications very carefully. This is something for which departments will compete.”
During their tenure at UO, Holzapfel and Bradshaw have helped train more than 500 students in their lab through a multitiered mentoring program in which postdocs and graduate students join them, working with undergraduates one-on-one. The lab’s goal is to involve students in original independent research that results in at least part of a paper in a refereed journal. The thrill of discovery is amazing, but research, students quickly learn, isn’t all glitz, glamour, accolades, and breakthroughs—or even getting to wear a cool lab coat and goggles. UO senior Loren Goemaat came to the lab as a freshman.
“In one of my first days in the lab, Bill Bradshaw said to me, ‘Either you’re going to find that you love research or you hate research, but either way you’re going to find out.’”
Indeed, at any given time, students work with the pitcher plants, assist in the care and feeding of some 200,000 mosquito juveniles from as many as 25 geographically distinct localities, all while pursuing their own independent projects. This unique mosquito, which spends its larval stage submerged in the aqueous reservoirs of the plant, feeds on bacteria, rotifers, protozoans, and pieces of deteriorating insects caught by the pitcher plant’s leaves.
“In our lab, before students can run experiments, they must first know how to grow mosquitoes from tiny wrigglers through the adult stage, to prepare food, to handle carnivorous plants in which the preadult stages live, and how to recognize aberrant behaviors,” Holzapfel says. “It’s like taking care of thousands of pets!”
“And not only that, but you have to grow the pet food!” adds Bradshaw.
Goematt’s favorite part about working in the lab has been the hands-on experience. “It isn’t just sitting at a computer—it’s working with the animals and getting experience in experimental design, data analysis, and the presentation of formal talks. Having that lab experience is important for any undergrad considering research because you have to know what research is like before committing to it.”
To ensure the continued excellence of the University of Oregon as a flagship research and teaching institution, fellow faculty members may choose to explore creative ways to pool their resources to create tax-deductible endowments at the departmental level.
“If each department on campus endowed a single award, be it a graduate fellowship in that department’s name or perhaps an undergraduate scholarship, all willing members adding a modest sum, could create immense opportunity on campus,” Holzapfel says. “If several departments joined together, they could endow a rotating award,” adds Bradshaw.
—Sharleen Nelson, BS ’06
Know Your Wyeomyia smithii
• In their larval stage, these mosquitoes live submerged in the aqueous reservoirs of their host, the carnivorous, prey-trapping purple pitcher plant, found in wet areas in North American bogs, seeps, or wet pine savannahs.
• The larvae feed on bacteria, rotifers, protozoans, and pieces of deteriorating insects caught by the pitcher plant’s leaves.
• Only adult female mosquitoes of any species take a blood meal (bite). These mosquitoes bite in southern North America, but never bite in the North.
• It takes about six weeks to complete their life cycle, which allows them to evolve rapidly and to keep pace with changing environmental conditions.
• Airborne adults may travel, but generally remain near the plants where they emerged.
• They use the length of daylight, or photoperiodism, to determine the optimal time to enter hibernation.
• In direct response to climate change, animals are developing earlier and hibernating later in the year.
What is a Carnivorous Purple Pitcher Plant?
• Sarracenia purpurea obtains most of its nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, through insects that become trapped inside its leaves.
• The leaves secrete sweet-smelling nectar that attracts insects.
• The hood of the pitcher-like leaf is lined with downward-pointing hairs that trap unwary insects, which drown in the rainwater that collects in the base of each leaf.
• The larvae of the mosquito, a midge, and a meat-eating fly complete their life cycles in the pitchers of the plant, in spite of the fact that the plants are themselves carnivorous.
• The plant is found in eastern North America from the Gulf Coast of Florida to Newfoundland, and across Canada to British Columbia.
For more information about setting up an endowment, contact David Welch, executive director of development (College of Arts and Sciences), 541-346-3951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.