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Erica with Dot Houchens and ladybug

Hugh Robertson

The past 2 years have seen a complete turnover of students in my lab, a major new research focus pick up steam, and my personal life take a turn for the better. My long-term postdoc, David Lampe, who had completed his Ph.D. here with Judy Willis before joining my lab, accepted an assistant pro-fessor position at Duquesne University in Pittsburg. We miss his expertise greatly, but he managed to get a lot done here, most significantly demonstrating that our mariner transposons can function independently of host cell factors. They are therefore potentially universal genetic vectors, something that is holding up well with demonstration of activity in human cells, Archaebacteria, and good old E. coli. The latter allowed him to develop a screen for hyperactive mutants of the mariner transposase in hopes of obtaining sufficiently active versions that might work well for insects, and renew our NIH funding for this work, which is now split between our labs. Our technician Kim Walden, a masters student in my lab who debunked claims of amplification of DNA from amber fossil bees, has taken the lead on our remaining mariner project, that is, their distribution in mammals and other vertebrates, and contribution to novel fusion genes in the human genome, another NIH-funded project.

Rosanna Giordano, Felipe Soto-Adames, and Chun-Liang Chen all finished up their Ph.D.’s and moved on to postdoctoral positions elsewhere. Their departures essentially end our efforts on the Wolbachia bacteria that cause cytoplasmic incompatibility, insect molecular phylogenies, and studies of P elements beyond the Drosophilidae, respectively. Rosanna and Felipe spent a year at the University of Connecticut with Chris Simons before moving on to the University of Vermont with Jan Conn, and continue to pursue related projects. Chun-Liang moved to Ohio State to work on Drosophila neurobiology.

Our new research focus is the search for the elusive insect olfactory receptor proteins. In collaboration with James Nardi, we obtained funding from the University Research Board, then NSF, and now a local fund for a major effort involving Expressed Sequence Tag surveys of genes expressed in insect antennae. This approach has proven very successful for the various model organisms, although we are not undertaking it at those scales (we sequence the ends of hundreds versus tens of thousands of cDNA clones). Our first project involving Manduca sexta male antennae yielded no clear receptor candidates, but did reveal a higher diversity of odorant binding proteins expressed in moth antennae than known before, and together with preliminary results from the Drosophila genome project strongly suggests that there are large families of these small secreted proteins that might act as filters in the sensilla. This work was carried out by a group of undergraduate students, and I finished the first manuscript over the holiday break. Another group of undergraduates has carried out a second project on female antennae, while several new graduate students, Ellen Todres, Karlene Ramsdell, and Harland Patch are undertaking similar projects on honey bees, western corn rootworms, and black swallowtail butterflies, respectively.

On the personal side, my wife Christina and I endured the stillbirth of our son, nicknamed Wiggles, on his due date in March 1997. We took my stepson Gabriel with us to South Africa that summer to visit my parents who have retired in Cape Town. We also got to visit Etosha National Park in Namibia, some of my old haunts in Johannesburg, and my sister and more wildlife parks in Natal. Then our daughter Erica was born May 1, 1998, and I’ve not quite recovered yet. She’s been a delight, and is now walking. She’s survived many trips already, including a summer month visiting my brother’s family in Hawaii and Christina’s family in Seattle. This winter Erica enjoyed all the snow we had, and we look forward to a road trip to visit friends on the East Coast after this semester, and then to Europe with her and Gabriel this summer to visit Christina’s relatives in Sweden and mine in Scotland.

Entomology Integrative Biology University of Illinois

Updated 12/08/99