Biophysicist Gore wins $1.5 million NIH Innovators Award
Denis Paiste, MPC News Office
Sept. 13, 2012
National Institutes of Health awarded a $1.5 million Director’s New Innovator Award today to MIT Assistant Professor of Physics Jeff Gore to continue his groundbreaking work in studying population collapse.
In the June issue of Science magazine, Gore and his team published a groundbreaking study on the collapse of yeast populations. Now they'll be able to build on what they've learned to study population collapse in more complex environments with the award for his proposal “Early warning indicators of tipping points in biological systems.”
"The idea is that biological systems, like many complex systems in nature, can shift suddenly in response to the changing environment," Gore, 34, said.
In their Science article, lead co-authors Lei Dai, an MIT graduate student, and Daan Vorselen, an MIT visiting student from the VU University (Vrije Universiteit) of Amsterdam, Netherlands, were joined by Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow Kirill S. Korolev and Gore as co-authors. Their study demonstrated in the laboratory that a yeast population under stress exhibited "critical slowing down" before a collapse, as mathematical models predicted. As their numbers decreased, the yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) also showed a decline in resilience to a salt shock, and an increase in the likelihood of extinction. The point at which collapse is the only possible outcome is referred to as the tipping point.
Commenting on the study, Prof. Carl V. Thompson, Stavros Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Materials Processing Center at MIT, said, "Prof. Gore has found a model system that allows detailed characterization of unstable biological populations, with interesting parallels with critical phenomena in materials. This is fascinating fundamental scientific work that might yield important insight into the stability of larger scale ecosystems and the influence of human-associated phenomena."
Gore conducted his research through the Materials Processing Center at MIT. MPC supports faculty research administratively from grant application through financial management.
“The Common Fund High Risk-High Reward program provides opportunities for innovative investigators in any area of health research to take risks when the potential impact in biomedical and behavioral science is high,”NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said.
The NIH New Innovators award will provide Gore's team $1.5 million in direct funding over five years (reaching about $2.3 million with indirect expenses included). It will require him to spend 25 percent of his research time on grant funded research.
"Any population will naturally have some fluctuations," Gore said. "The first thing you can do is just characterize the size of the fluctuations. What's predicted is that fluctuations will get larger as you approach the tipping point," he said. "This is an effect that we can measure experimentally in the lab."
The hope is that population studies will identify markers that can be used in natural populations such as fisheries to monitor and support the health of wildlife. "I would be disappointed if in the next, say, five (to) 10 years, we were not actively using these ideas to characterize the stability of at least some systems of real interest."
"These ideas have been used to look at lake ecosystems but still in kind of an experimental context, where they take two lakes that they think are similar and then start adding a predator to one of the lakes until they drive some transition," Gore said."These ideas are being used in the field, but there is a lot of value in studying them in more controlled systems so that we can provide guidance to each other," he said.
Ongoing population collapse studies focus on producer and consumer yeast as well as a group of five different soil microbes.
"We're also interested in trying to understand something about what happens when populations are coupled," Gore said. "In the experiment that we published in Science, we had an isolated population and then we just looked at the fluctuations of that population. Whereas in theory, if you have neighboring populations that are next to each other they should become more similar to each other as you approach this point of collapse. The idea is as you get close to the tipping point, what happens is that the fluctuations should become more and more similar so that neighboring populations will perhaps fluctuate together.
"And this is something that you should be able to measure and so we are trying to do that here in the laboratory," he said.