A biologist in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences will discuss the evolutionary arms race between deadly newts and the garter snakes that prey on them – and explore the process by which researchers choose such topics – at a public lecture presented by the College on Oct. 25.
Butch Brodie, the BFD Runk Professor of Botany in the Department of Biology and the director of the Mountain Lake Biological Station, has spent years studying the ways in which predators and prey interact. His 5 p.m. lecture in the auditorium at Peabody Hall is the second in a new series designed to allow faculty members to share their work with the greater University community, as well as the public, and to exhibit the intellectual resources made possible by the College’s endowed professorships.
“The College encompasses many disciplines and is home to researchers with seemingly disparate areas of expertise, but it also nurtures a singular community of scholars who confront common questions, regardless of discipline,” said Meredith Jung-En Woo, the Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. “Among these is the question of how a researcher decides on his or her initial area of study, which could lead to a lifetime of questions and study.”
In his talk, Brodie will explore the process by which his own research questions were formed and discuss the unexpected places they led. For about 20 years, Brodie has worked with his father – professor Edmund D. Brodie Jr. of Utah State University – on questions related to predators and prey, with a focus on snakes. Their project led them to the rough-skinned newt, a salamander that lives in the western United States and is one of the most poisonous creatures on the planet.
“It has enough poison in its skin to kill up to 20 humans, which is a ridiculous level of toxicity,” Brodie said. “There’s no reason that evolution should ever push an animal to be defended against multiple predators. So you’ve got this kind of paradox of how it ended up with such an extreme trait that doesn’t seem to make sense at face value.”
Brodie’s research suggests that the newt’s neurotoxin developed as part of what he calls an “evolutionary arms race” with a particular type of garter snake that preys on it. Over generations, newts in the region and the snakes that prey on them developed extreme traits: the newt’s potent neurotoxin and the snake’s competing resistance..
“The idea is that if you have natural enemies and one of them increases in their defensive ability, the other has to have a counter-defense or exploitation,” Brodie said. “You get this ratcheting-up of abilities. There’s really no governor on it.”
By studying interactions between similar predators and prey in different locations, researchers have been able to piece together the evolutionary steps that led to the trait’s development. This has helped push Brodie’s research in new directions and prompted unexpected collaborations with other researchers.
“As biologists, we’re trained with one skill set,” he said. “You’ve got your toolbox. But to answer questions in the modern world, you’ve really got to bring in other tools. It’s much more efficient and more powerful in most cases to collaborate with people who already have those skills. So we collaborate with neurophysiologists who look at the basis of the nerve action that resists the impact of this toxin. We collaborate with the molecular biologists who do the DNA sequencing. My role is knitting it all back together.”
During his talk, Brodie will also focus on how researchers settle on the questions they pursue. He recounted a recent experience talking to students in a class in Idaho about his research. Many of the questions were about the process of selecting a research question.
“In my experience, these are questions that people really gravitate toward: How do you come up with the first research question? How did that lead to the next question?” Brodie said. “In recent years, I’ve been interested in the importance of discussing that process with students. It seems to be a way that people can be drawn into the science part of research, because the science becomes a tool to answer a question instead of an end in itself.”
Brodie’s chair was endowed in the name of Benjamin Franklin Dewees Runk, a former U.Va. undergrad, graduate student, biology professor, registrar and dean who also served as the grand marshal in graduation ceremonies, leading the walk down the Lawn. He retired in 1976 and died in 1994.
“It’s an honor to hold a chair named for a lifetime member of this community,” Brodie said. “It’s nice that there’s a way to carry on recognition of his devotion to the institution.”