Daniel Bolnick, Ph.D., professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin, is the recipient of the 2017 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Award in Science.
Bolnick has deepened our understanding of how evolution and ecology intersect. His work often takes him out in the natural world, including yearly trips to Canada to study parasite resistance in fish. By understanding how some fish are resistant to parasites, we could achieve a better understanding of our own immune systems, which could lead to better treatments for everything from allergies to Crohn’s Disease. “It’s this synthesis of ecology and evolution that’s enabled him to open up a whole new area. This environment he’s created for himself is really rich and ripe for the possibilities of discovery,” says Daniel Jaffe, Ph.D., vice president for research at The University of Texas at Austin. “He’s really broken new ground across a very broad field that has a lot of impact.”
Dr. Bolnick has made major contributions to both Ecology and Evolution. In Ecology, he strongly promoted the idea that within-species diversity profoundly alters population and community dynamics. He also provided key models and data describing how within-species diversity is sustained via Evolution. His work highlights the reciprocal feedback between ecology and evolution.
Dr. Bolnick’s research sits at the interface of evolution, ecology, behavior, genetics, and immunology. He studies the reciprocal interplay between species interactions (e.g., competition, predation, parasitism) and the evolution of genetic diversity within species. Dr. Bolnick’s work in this area has been exceptionally successful. He is the only scientist to have received the top young investigator prizes in both Ecology (Mercer Award) and Evolution (Dobzhansky Prize). He also received awards from the Packard Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as the David Starr Jordan Award.
Dr. Bolnick’s early research demonstrated that natural animal populations harbor surprising levels of diet variation among co-occurring individuals (Bolnick et al 2003 and later papers). The initial paper remains the most-cited article in The American Naturalist (a top journal in the field) since 2003 (1150 citations), and stimulated a conference and three symposia.
This variation was surprising because natural selection is typically thought to purge genetic diversity. However, Dr. Bolnick experimentally showed that a previously-untested theory can explain the persistence of ecologically significant variation. By experimentally manipulating competition for food (in lab insects, and in wild fish), he showed that atypical feeding strategies gain an advantage when food is scarce. Subsequently, Dr. Bolnick showed (through theory and experiments) that the resulting within-species trait variation can promote population stability, reduce extinction risk, and alter the community composition of prey, predators, and parasites.
Dr. Bolnick received his Ph.D. in population biology from the University of California at Davis. He completed his postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Davis before joining the University of Texas in 2004 as a professor of integrated biology.