Biology Department News

Dr. Becky Ostertag’s publication wins Bradshaw Medal

Wednesday, February 13, 2019, 6:11pm by

The Society for Ecological Restoration recently presented the Bradshaw Medal to two outstanding papers published in its peer-reviewed journal, Restoration Ecology. Named for famed British ecologist and restoration pioneer Tony Bradshaw, the award honors scientific papers that advance the field of restoration ecology in a significant way. Susan Cordell, Rebecca Ostertag, Jené Michaud, and Laura Warman published “Quandaries of a decadelong restoration experiment trying to reduce invasive species: beat them, join them, give up, or start over?”  Their study investigated the most effective way to reforest native species in Hawai’i to recover biodiversity.  Ostertag is a member of the Biology department and Michaud is a member of the Geology department at UH Hilo, while Cordell and Warman are affiliated with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. Full article:

UH Hilo students featured in the University of Hawaiʻi News for the use of cutting-edge technologies to study invasive mosquitoes

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:41am by

Read the article and watch the video to learn more about how UH Hilo graduate student, Jared Nishimoto, and undergraduates under the supervision of Dr. Jolene Sutton are developing genetic technologies that will help control invasive mosquitoes in Hawaiʻi.

UH Hilo faculty, Dr. Matt Knope, is using his own classroom to examine best practices in undergraduate research experiences

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 12:38am by

CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) have proven effective for a wide-variety of student learning objectives and Matt Knope, along with his collaborators at Arizona State, are investigating which model of scientific inquiry results in better outcomes for students. Read the full article for more information.

UH Hilo student awarded two national study abroad scholarships

Wednesday, December 19, 2018, 6:46pm by

Ms. Ashley Romero, a University of Hawai`i at Hilo Biology major,
has been awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Fund for Education
Abroad for spring 2019.  She will be participating in UH Hilo’s
direct international exchange program to the University of Waikato
in Hamilton, New Zealand.

The 22 spring 2019 FEA scholarship winners were selected from a
pool of over 1,250 applicants representing approximately 470
colleges and universities across the country.

Romero was also awarded the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman
International Scholarship in the amount of $5,000 to be used
toward her study abroad program.  The Gilman Scholarship supports
American undergraduate students of limited financial means to
study or intern abroad.

Source: UH Hilo Office of Media Relations

Dr. Jonathan B. Koch publishes papers in the journals PLoS ONE and Annals of the Entomological Society of America

Thursday, November 29, 2018, 9:51pm by

Dr. Jonathan B. Koch, a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at UH Hilo is the lead author of two articles published in the journals PLoS ONE and Annals of the Entomological Society of America. In the journal PLoS ONE, Dr. Koch published “Phylogeny and population genetic analyses reveals cryptic speciation in the Bombus fervidus species complex (Hymenoptera: Apidae).” Cryptic speciation is the process in which organisms share a nearly identical phenotype but belong to different species. In his paper, he uses microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA data to elucidate the evolutionary history of bumble bees in the B. fervidus species complex. He discovers that the complex is made up of two monophyletic lineages that are comprised of bumble bees that have converged on color phenotypes. His research has broad implications to the conservation and management of these North American bumble bee species.

In the journal Annals of the Entomological Society of America, he published “A preliminary assessment of bumble bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) habitat suitability across protected and unprotected areas in the Philippines”. In this paper, he constructs habitat suitability models of two bumble bee species that live the Philippines, Bombus flavescens and B. irisanensis. He discovers that their habitat is broadly distributed in the Philippines, but is threatened with deforestation. Both articles are open access, and can be downloaded from and Dr. Koch, the Principal Investigator of the nalo meli ‘āpa‘akuma project, explores useful ways to use genomic data to guide the management and conservation of endemic Hawaiian bees.

UH Hilo Assistant Professor Jolene Sutton and colleagues are awarded Marsden Fund for research on endangered birds

Thursday, November 8, 2018, 2:39am by

UH Hilo Assistant Professor Jolene Sutton along with colleagues from University of Otago (New Zealand), University of Sydney (Australia), and San Diego Zoo Global have been awarded a Marsden Fund for their project, “Resolving the genomic architecture of hatching failure to improve conservation of endangered birds”. The award will provide 933,000$NZD (~630,000$USD) over three years. 

Abstract: “Egg-hatching failure is a frustrating reality in endangered bird conservation. Many eggs fail to hatch due to reduced fitness of individuals with related parents (inbreeding depression). Despite decades of research on the topic, management guidelines often simply state “avoid inbreeding”. We need to do better. We take advantage of recent advances in molecular genetics and bioinformatics to discover the genomic architecture of hatching failure in two iconic endangered birds: ‘Alalā (Hawai‘i) and Kākāpō (New Zealand). These two species are powerful model systems for uncovering the cause of hatching problems that plague many species: both species have long-term pedigree data, detailed fitness records, extensive high quality genomic resources, and large numbers of samples (including embryos that died in the egg) for analysis. We will also capitalize on a growing number of published avian reference genomes to undertake comparative analysis and enable our results to be applied more broadly. By combining massive datasets in this way, we are uniquely placed to make the most of recent molecular and analytical advances and uncover why inbreeding leads to hatching failure. Our study will make a fundamental contribution to the understanding of hatching success in birds, and offer much-needed management options for endangered species conservation.”

Dr. Li Tao Receives NIH INBRE IV Junior Investigators Award

Wednesday, October 17, 2018, 6:15pm by

Assistant Professor Li Tao has received an INBRE IV Junior Investigators (JIs) Award for his project, “Structural and Functional Analysis of Centralspindlin”. The INBRE IV JIs Award will provide substantial funding for up to 3 years at $100,000/year in direct costs. The Tao’s lab will center its research on the molecular mechanism through which centralspindlin regulates cytokinesis. Abnormal cell division (mitosis) causes cancer. Understanding the mechanism of cell division and its regulation has thus become a key to finding cures for cancer. Cytokinesis is the last gate to control cell division. Cytokinesis is dominated by a motor complex, centralspindlin. However, little is known of the structure and function of centralspindlin. This project will address a significant knowledge gap on the regulation of cytokinesis. It will also provide clues for the development of new anti-cancer therapies.

In photo: The Tao Lab (2018). L-R: Li Tao, Joshua Lawcock, Chelsea Blaquera, Marilyn Yamamoto, Kathleen Shon, and Jamae Balagot.

TCBES student Gary Sur publishes work from his undergraduate research!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018, 1:57am by

Congratulations to Gary Sur for publishing work from his undergraduate research with his supervisor Elizabeth Stacy and co-authors! Their paper, “Leaf Micromorphology Aids Taxonomic Delineation within the Hypervariable Genus Metrosideros (Myrtaceae) on O’ahu“, was published in the July 2018 issue of Pacific Science
Using scanning electron and light microscopy, Sur examined leaves from each of 10 O‘hia varieties along an elevational gradient. He found that stomatal complex and secretory structure traits were able to differentiate all four glabrous varieties, and two of the three pubescent varieties. These results indicate that variation in leaf micromorphology can aid delimitation of closely related Hawaiian O‘hia, and may reflect local adaptations across a heterogeneous landscape.
Sur is a Conservation Genomics Research Group member and MSc candidate in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program.

SEM of Leaf Stomata in Metrosideros

Scanning electron micrograph of leaf stomata

SEM of Leaf Stomata in Metrosideros

Biology Scientists awarded NSF Grant for Rapid ‘Ōhiʻa Death Research

Tuesday, August 14, 2018, 10:51pm by

ʻApapane on an ‘Ōhiʻa branch
An ‘Apapane on an ‘Ōhiʻa branch

Drs. Kristina Paxton and Patrick Hart were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) to assess the impact of Rapid ‘Ōhiʻa Death on Hawaiian forest birds. The project is entitled: “RAPID: Cascading effects of rapid and widespread mortality of a foundation tree species on animal communities in Hawaiʻi”
Rapid ‘Ōhiʻa Death or ROD, is a fungal pathogen causing rapid and widespread mortality of ‘Ōhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha), a foundation tree species in Hawaiian forests. ROD poses a serious threat to Hawaiʻi’s remaining native forests and the plants and animals that depend on ‘Ōhiʻa. Research focused on ROD to-date has been concentrated on understanding the pathology of the disease, how ROD is spread, and the impacts of ROD on ‘Ōhiʻa trees. However, there has not been an examination of how ROD is affecting animal communities reliant on ‘Ōhiʻa forests. ‘Ōhiʻa is an important nesting substrate and food resource for both insectivorous and nectarivorous Hawaiian forest birds, 57% of which are threatened or endangered, and there is no substitute for the volume, geographic spread, and year-round source of nectar provided by ‘Ōhiʻa. Given the foundational role of ‘Ōhiʻa in Hawaiian forest communities as the dominant tree in the canopy, the widespread or total loss of ‘Ōhiʻa would likely be catastrophic for endemic Hawaiian forest birds.

This project will use advances in recording technology to continuously record, over an extended period of time, the entire sound-producing animal community (i.e., biophony of a soundscape) within ‘Ōhiʻa forests across Hawaiʻi Island. By using soundscape analysis tools developed within the growing field of soundscape ecology the researchers will be able to rapidly assess changes in the biodiversity of audible birds, insects, and amphibian species associated with mortality of ʻŌhiʻa across the landscape. The research will also evaluate whether the diversity and composition of understory plant species moderates how reliant animal communities respond to the loss of a dominant forest tree species. The use of soundscape indices to model biodiversity following the loss of a foundation species represents a novel and relatively rapid method for assessing ecological change and would be applicable in a range of ecosystems outside Hawaiʻi.

UH Hilo genetics research team releases unprecedented genome assembly for endangered Hawaiian crow

Tuesday, August 14, 2018, 10:30pm by

The extraordinary findings of a genetic research team at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo studying the ‘alalā (Hawaiian crow), one of the world’s most endangered bird species, are published in the current issue of the journal Genes. Biologist Jolene Sutton, an assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who specializes in evolutionary genetics, led the team of UH Hilo colleagues Martin Helmkampf, a research scientist with the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, and Renee Bellinger of the Conservation Genomics Research Group, along with collaborators from the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, San Diego Zoo Global, and Pacific Biosciences, a Silicon Valley company that provides sophisticated genomic analysis systems.

The article, “A high-quality, long-read de novogenome assembly to aid conservation of Hawaii’s last remaining crow species,” describes the high-quality reference genome that was generated to assist recovery efforts for the ‘alalā.

“The quality of this assembly places it among the very best avian genomes assembled to date, comparable to intensively studied model systems,” according to a post on the UH Hilo Biology Department News website.

Researchers and conservationists are currently using this resource to better understand genetic diversity in the ‘alalā, and to develop tools that will help inform strategic pairings as part of the conservation-breeding program. This genome assembly is now publicly available.

The paper is the cover story of the August 2018 issue of Genes, a special issue on conservation genetics and genomics.

PacBio reports:

Led by Jolene Sutton, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, the team created an assembly which has provided critical insights into inbreeding and disease susceptibility. They found that the ‘alalā genome is substantially more homozygous compared with more outbred species, and created annotations for a subset of immunity genes that are likely to be important for conservation applications.

As reported in the latest issue of Genes — and featured on its cover — the quality of the assembly places it amongst the very best avian genomes assembled to date, comparable to intensively studied model systems.

“Such genome-level data offer unprecedented precision to examine the causes and genetic consequences of population declines, and to apply these results to conservation management,” the authors state. “Although pair selection and managed breeding using the pedigree has kept the inbreeding level of the ‘alalā population at a relatively low level over the past 20 years, the intensive and ongoing conservation management of the species requires a more detailed approach.”