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Curiosity about evolution is in biology professor's DNA

Jeff Demuth
Jeff Demuth says UT Arlington's commitment to genomics is what led him to join its faculty.

As a kid, Jeff Demuth developed a love of the outdoors and of all things creepy and crawly. It wasn't unusual for him to bring home frogs, snakes, turtles, crayfish or other critters he'd catch during a day of exploring.

"I always loved the outdoors and was encouraged to explore nature by my parents and especially my maternal grandmother," he said.

Demuth never lost his love of nature, but it now manifests itself in a different way. The assistant professor of biology, in his third year at UT Arlington, studies the evolution of genes, genomes and organisms. He's interested in how genetic interactions change the physical appearance of an organism in different genomic or environmental contexts.

"A quote from one of my mentors that suits me quite well is, 'I do evolution; the rest is just details,' " he said. "I'm very fortunate. Not many people get to make a career out of doing something they love. The main difference is that as a kid, I only had to satisfy my own curiosity. When biology became my profession, I had to learn how to convince other people why it's so cool, too!"

Much of the experimental work in Demuth's lab involves the flour beetle (genus Tribolium castaneum). He is the principal investigator, along with biologist Mike Wade of Indiana University, of a four-year, $2.2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study speciation in the flour beetle and why beetles from different parts of the world often do not produce healthy offspring when brought together in the lab. The study "looks at how gene interactions differ between populations that are closely related versus distantly related versus separate species altogether" The ultimate goal is to answer general questions about whether the genetic loci isolating populations from each other are of the same type as those separating species.

"This research has broad implications for our understanding of topics as seemingly different as mapping genetic causes of disease and the origin of new species," Demuth said. "Hopefully, this study will provide insight into fundamental issues about negative gene interactions that cause detrimental traits - like human disease -- and also evolutionary insights about the kinds of changes that are most likely to result in new species."

Dr. Jonathan Campbell, chair of the biology department, described Demuth as a tremendous asset to the university because of his dedication in the lab and to his students.

"He's a superb researcher and is doing great work, but he's also a great teacher and mentor," Campbell said. "He has a quiet, laid-back style that is appreciated by all. He"s one of those quietly confident people that you really enjoy having on your team."

Demuth was born near Detroit and grew up living in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Jersey. He earned a bachelor's in biology at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., in 1994 and a master's in biology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La. His master's work focused on the evolution of temperature-dependent-sex-determination (TSD) in turtles. Many reptiles, including turtles, determine the gender of their offspring by the incubation temperature of the eggs rather than genetically.

"At the end of my master's, I got a little frustrated that I might spend a career working on very interesting organisms that didn't add very much to our more general understanding of nature, so I decided to do a Ph.D. in a more mathematically oriented program at Indiana," he said. "It was there that I became interested in studying how gene and environmental interactions govern responses to evolutionary forces and especially how they promote or constrain biodiversity."

He received his Ph.D. in biology (evolution and ecology) from Indiana University in 2004 and also did postdoctoral work there in bioinformatics -- the use of computer science and information technology to study molecular biology, in particular the analysis of genomic data. UT Arlington's genomics program, which recently expanded its facilities and added new equipment, impressed Demuth when he came to interview for a faculty position.

"The genomics group at UTA is the reason I took the job here," he said. "Three years ago when I started here, UTA was beginning to gain national attention in genome evolution circles for the pace of growth and quality of the hires in this area. Since then we have continued to recruit excellent people that have already been remarkably successful both in terms of high quality publications and attracting substantial grant funding from the NSF and NIH."

Demuth co-authored the $526,000 grant from the National Science Foundation which allowed UT Arlington's Genomics Core Facility topurchase a new Roche 454 Genome Sequencer. The next-generation device provides ultra-high speed DNA sequencing and more comprehensive data.

"The recent expansion and renovation of the genomics core facility is another example of great things happening in biology at UTA," Demuth said. "This infrastructure growth not only helps facilitate faculty research it also provides new, cutting-edge, opportunities for UTA students. For example, my bioinformatics students are sequencing and analyzing the genome of a beetle on our new DNA sequencer for their class project this semester."

Esther Betran, associate professor in biology, co-authored the genome sequencer grant with Demuth and is his frequent collaborator.

"Jeff has been a great addition to the Department of Biology since the beginning," Betran said. "He bridges between disciplines in the department (i.e., ecology, evolutionary biology and genomics), excelling in all of them as the top scientist that he is. He also has a lot of perspective on where science is going with the new technologies that are being used and has contributed to help position the department to benefit from those technologies."

"He is not afraid of challenges. He is definitely equipped for the challenges with strong training in theoretical population genetics, bioinformatics and the capacity to adopt new experimental and novel technologies. He has, in his short time at UTA, enhanced our department and program greatly."

Demuth is also studying the genetic basis of reproductive isolation of weedy flowering plants in the genus Silene, using a $356,000 NSF grant. The study, in collaboration with Lynda Delph's lab at Indiana University, looks at how the genetic differences between males and females can constrain, or accelerate, evolution. "It's a cool project because some species in the genus have male and female plants while others are hermaphrodites," Demuth said."We expect these to have very different genetic pathways to result in the kind of differences that define species."

Demuth teaches three classes: Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity, an undergraduate course which "reviews significant aspects of organismal biology and presents current hypotheses concerning the origin and diversification of life on earth"; Experimental Design and Analysis, a graduate level class; and Bioinformatics, another graduate course which Demuth says might be more appropriately called "Comparative Genomics". His Bioinformatics students are using the new Roche 454 sequencer this semester to sequence the genome of a beetle.

Demuth, who lives in Mansfield with his wife, Kathleen, and three daughters, Morgan, Annika and Lauren, is excited by the opportunities made possible by UT Arlington's increased commitment to research as it strives to become a Tier I university.

"We're in a very exciting time in biology where sequencing technology has really opened the door to a lot of purely discovery driven science," he said. "Although I think the conceptual issues that drive my day-to-day research are important, if I had a blank check, I would want to satisfy the simple curiosity I have about what's out there."

"In some ways it harkens back to my days as a kid when I wanted to catch everything just to check it out. Only now the tools, and hopefully the insights, are a little more sophisticated."