The Genetics Society of America (GSA) is pleased to announce that Professor Mariana Wolfner of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University is the recipient of the 2018 Genetics Society of America Medal for her work on reproduction. Wolfner and her colleagues have identified proteins in the seminal fluid of fruit flies that are transmitted to female flies during mating, manipulating the females’ physiology and behavior. This work has had important implications for our understanding of evolution and sexual conflict as well as the regulation of reproduction in all animals.
“Dr. Wolfner exemplifies how a single investigator, through creative thinking and ingenious experimental design, can virtually single-handedly develop an entirely new and original field in genetics,” says Robert Anholt, a professor at North Carolina State University.
The approximately 200 known seminal proteins in fruit flies include some of the fastest-evolving fly proteins. Some of these proteins trigger changes in female flies, causing them to greatly increase their rate of egg laying, decreasing the likelihood they will mate again, inducing them to store the male’s sperm, and altering their feeding and resting behaviors. While individual male flies may benefit from these changes, females can pay the price of an earlier death—a major tradeoff for the species as a whole. These findings highlight the intense reproductive competition among males and have proven a research goldmine for scientists studying evolution, with Wolfner’s group at the forefront.
“Mariana is widely recognized as the international expert on these proteins,” says Andrew Clark, also a professor at Cornell University. Wolfner’s lab is now working to reveal how seminal proteins work at the molecular level, including collaborating with Cornell’s Laura Harrington on analogous studies of mosquitoes that transmit dengue and Zika viruses.
The group’s other ongoing projects include an effort to understand how eggs are triggered to develop into embryos. In most animals, the egg-activation process depends on fertilization by sperm, but a quirk of fruit fly biology makes it an ideal model for studying this highly conserved process. In the fly, egg activation is uncoupled from fertilization, allowing the Wolfner lab to deconstruct the molecular events that initiate embryonic development.
GSA established the Genetics Society of America Medal in 1981 to recognize investigators who have made substantial advances in genetics in the past 15 years. The prize will be presented to Wolfner at 59th Annual Drosophila Research Conference, which will take place April 11–15, 2018 in Philadelphia.