UT professor recognized for revolutionary fish research

Kate Thackrey

Known best for his intensive work with the three-spined stickleback fish, UT integrative biology professor Daniel Bolnick accepted the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award for his contributions to Texas science last week. 

The O’Donnell Award is given each year by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, or TAMEST. Bolnick presented his work and received his award as part of the TAMEST 2017 Annual Conference on Jan. 12.

The Bolnick lab covers a wide range of research areas, with a main focus on the three-spined stickleback, a small fish with three defensive spines. The stickleback fish lives along coastal areas and in freshwater lakes and rivers, including Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, where the lab conducts most of its field work. These stickleback populations are separated by short stretches of land and different communities show significant physical, genetic and immune system differences.

“The stickleback as a research organism is very diverse, there are many populations of this fish…and they’ve evolved substantial genetic differences between these sites to deal with their selected environments,” Bolnick said.

During his presentation, Bolnick showcased his lab’s research on the relationship between the three-spined stickleback and its main parasite, a tapeworm called Schistocephalus solidus. Bolnick and his team found that in certain areas, this tapeworm could grow to take up 50 percent of the total mass of a fish, while tapeworms that occupied fish from other areas were much smaller. 

“So some of these fish are resistant to parasites and some are not at all,” Bolnick said. “That gives us the opportunity to look in detail at the genetics and immunity that underlies this resistance, and what tricks they’ve used to find new, innovative ways of combating parasites.”

After mapping the genomes of the stickleback populations, the researchers found that those with smaller parasites were more likely to exhibit fibrosis, the development of organs with extra connective tissue.

“[With fibrosis] all of the organs are bound together in this tight, fibrous mass that captures a parasite and holds it fixed, typically encasing it in a cyst, and so in the long run those tiny tapeworms can be eliminated successfully,” Bolnick said during his presentation.

Bolnick said that although these discoveries have important applications, questions motivate him more than results.

“This is fundamentally curiosity-driven research, trying to understand the basic principles of how life came to be the way it is, and how life evolves and changes,” he said. “It’s not to say that there aren’t applications, … but that’s not the entering motivation.”

When it comes to the stickleback, Bolnick said the lab explores a wide variety of experimental questions. Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral fellow in the Bolnick lab for over three years, studies the physical differences between stickleback found in lakes and those found in streams. He said some of his favorite research experiences working with Bolnick come from working in the field.

“Just working in the field in general we get to go to some remote lakes … and see some beautiful landscapes and animals,” Stuart said. “Getting to understand the evolution of these fish is pretty special.”

TAMEST board of directors member Francisco Cigarroa, who introduced the awardees at the ceremony, said the awards play an important role in raising awareness of important research occurring in the state.

“We’re here to recognize the outstanding achievements by young investigators of medicine, engineering [and] science,” Cigarroa said.

Bolnick’s award includes a $25,000 grant from the O’Donnell Endowment, which Bolnick said he will use to further his lab’s research, which ranges from stickleback fish to flower beetles to vampire bats.