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NSF Awards $1.9M for Interdisciplinary Study of Bat Senses, Evolution

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A research team spread across four universities has netted a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study bats to uncover the genetic, developmental, and anatomical basis of natural selection for their unique sensory structures.

The group includes three co-principal investigators from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Stony Brook University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a partner at Queen Mary University of London, UMass Amherst said yesterday.

"We'll look at the size and shape of structures associated with smell, hearing, and taste. This will give us a new view of anatomy, and for many bat species these have never been imaged before," Elizabeth Dumont, a professor of biology at UMass Amherst, said in a statement.

The team will examine 130 species of New World Leaf-nosed bats with three different approaches — by looking at the genes that are associated with sensory systems; examining the molecular and cellular processes that generate special sensory structures in embryos; and analyzing how space is allocated to sensory structures in the bat's heads.

Part of the project will involve using CT scans to image structural features of bat heads, such as where muscles attach, the size of eyeballs, and the structures of the inner ear.

"We'll explore the anatomy of which organs takes up more space, how that is related to genetics and to embryonic development, and the ecological niche the animal thrives in," Dumont said. "We'll ask what natural selection is working on to produce so much diversity, and what are the gene changes that go along with the development of a particular nose, for example,".

Although the focus will be on bat heads, the investigators also aim to show a new model for studying mammalian evolution more broadly.

"At the end of five years we hope to be able to show the genetic, developmental, and anatomical basis of the evolution of sensory structures in a group of mammals. This has never been done before," Dumont said.