Dr. Lynn “Marty” Martin principal investigator on $1.3 NSF grant looking at evolutionary processes

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What can a common backyard visitor—the ubiquitous house sparrow—teach us about evolution?

It could be a lot.

Dr. Lynn “Marty” Martin, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) professor of global and planetary health and a disease ecology expert, is the principal investigator of a collaborative research project involving colleagues Dr. Kevin Kohl from the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Aaron Schrey from Georgia Southern University, Dr. Cedric Zimmer, a postdoc at USF and Haley Hanson, a USF PhD student who works in Martin’s lab.

The group was awarded a total of $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and will study how some species, such as the house sparrow, have managed to colonize much of the planet while others have narrow geographic ranges.

“This kind of research is important because it reveals the details of evolutionary processes,” said Martin, who is also the co-host of the podcast Big Biology. “It also has practical value, as it could help us understand how some species can become pests, causing economic damage and sometimes spreading disease.”

Lynn “Marty” Martin, PhD, in Hoi An, Vietnam, with a house sparrow. (Photo courtesy of Martin)

No place on Earth is safe from infection. And according to Martin, when animals colonize new places, they must kill or control new parasites or the invasion fails.

“Preliminary data show that house sparrows have an exceptional ability to adjust their immune systems via a process called DNA methylation,” explained Martin. “We liken this ability to knobs on a radio—more knobs mean more sophisticated control of sound quality. House sparrows seem to have more knobs in their genomes, which we expect helps them adjust their immune gene expression and thus control especially new parasites well.”

How did house sparrows happen to get “more knobs”? No one is really sure. But the grant will allow Martin and his colleagues to perform experiments to test directly if more genome control knobs offer better protection from infections.

“We’ll compare genome knob numbers between native and introduced groups of sparrows, expecting more knobs in invading birds,” he said. “We’ll also study sparrows in museum collections, asking how knob number has changed since introductions first happened in the 1850s.”

Martin is also at work on other NSF research, this time looking at avian heterophils, which are broadly protective white blood cells. The research, performed with postdoctoral scholar Dr. Emily Cornelius Ruhs, has been accepted for publication in the journal Proceedings B.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health