Microbes — organisms of a microscopic size — may not be very big. But, as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Nancy Moran will tell you, that doesn’t mean they won’t win you big awards.
New research by Moran has begun to explain in detail the complex idea of symbiosis — the function of two organisms living together in tandem — specifically for the smallest of organisms: microbes. And last week, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science awarded Moran the International Prize for Biology in recognition of her ground-breaking discoveries in explaining symbiosis.
The specific focus for this year’s prize was “Biology of Symbiosis.” Moran said her research focuses on interactions between organisms and symbiotic microorganisms within them.
In a press release last week, the Society praised Moran for her versatile approach in her research, adding that her research has broad implications for fields of biology, including evolutionary biology, ecology, microbiology, and genomics.
“What I find most amazing is that Nancy has shown that symbiosis is critically important for success for many of the most diverse and successful organisms of the planet,” said Richard Prum, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is also the curator of Ornithology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
David Post, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, explained Moran’s work is remarkable for deepening the discussion of symbiosis by explaining evolutionary mechanisms that were previously unknown.
“Symbiosis used to be story telling; the mechanisms weren’t always understood,” said Post. “Nancy has brought sophisticated techniques to understanding symbiotic organisms. She has elevated the game.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the ’70s, Moran said she remembers taking her first biology class and being “immediately interested” in the field. She has been studying microbes — organisms of microscopic size — since 1990, in large part because of technological advances.
“When you put them in the lab, they just die,” she said. With the advent of genomic sequencing technology in the ’80s, Moran said microbes could be studied with more sophistication. Moran’s next project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on the microbes living within the gut of honeybees.
After 19 years of studying microbes, Moran came to Yale from the University of Arizona in 2009 to help anchor the newly established Microbial Diversity Institute.
The Institute, which opened in April 2010, focuses on “discovering, characterizing and harnessing the still largely unknown microbial world.”
“I hope [this award] helps the Institute be recognized,” said Moran. “We’re aiming to get eight or nine different labs. The shared language and shared quality of microbial diversity allows research from different backgrounds to come together.”
Leo Buss, the director of undergraduate studies for the ecology and evolutionary biology major, added that Moran’s award is also a sign of the strength and international quality of Yale’s faculty.
Moran was a 1997 recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation award and is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and current chair of the Section on Evolutionary Biology of the National Academy.
The International Prize for Biology, given annually since 1985, commemorates the 62-year reign of former Emperor Showa and comes with 10 million yen (about $120,000).