Donald Price, biology: Authority on population genetics of native Hawaiian species

Photo above: Don Price (at left) in the field with Peltin Pelep, a graduate student in the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program. Price and Pelep are in the Laupahoehoe Experimental Forest on Hawai‘i Island collecting several species of Hawaiian Drosophila for Pelep’s research project (2011).  

Professor of Biology Price’s contribution to the literature includes an understanding of the phenotypic and genetic causes of speciation that helps create and maintain the biodiversity found in Hawai‘i.

NOTE: Published March 18, 2013; last updated April 20, 2018. Don Price left UH Hilo in 2016 to accept a position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Donald Price is a professor of biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The primary focus of his research is in local adaptation of populations and speciation, most specifically in relation to population genetics of native Hawaiian species.

Don Price
Don Price

Price’s research makes use of the latest in molecular and statistical genetic analysis techniques. One of his most significant contributions to the literature is in understanding the phenotypic and genetic causes of speciation that helps create and maintain the biodiversity found in Hawai‘i.

“Hawai‘i is a remarkable place in terms of the number of unique species that occur nowhere else on Earth,” says Price. “As we continue to unlock the secrets of how all of these different species came to be in Hawai‘i, we will learn more about how to help conserve and maintain this diversity.”

Price primarily focuses on “the wonderfully unique Hawaiian picture-wing Drosophila,” he says. This is a group of 120-plus species of small flies within the larger group of 800-plus Hawaiian Drosophila. These species display diverse ranges of behaviors and morphologies that contribute to their speciation.

Another significant contribution of Price to the literature is in bringing about more understanding about how species adapt to diverse environmental conditions.

“Hawai‘i has a high diversity of habitats and environments in which species must adapt,” he says. “We have found that some of the unique Hawaiian Drosophila are adapted to very specific ranges of temperature along elevation gradients. Over only a short distance of 1,000 meters, populations of the same species are highly different in their ability to tolerate different temperatures at the behavioral and genetic level. We have been using new gene expression techniques to unlock the adaptation of these species at very fine geographical scales.”

Three specimens of Drosophila silvestris and Drosophila heteroneura, on fern leaf.
Drosophila silvestris and Drosophila heteroneura.

Price says his work benefits the local community and culture by demonstrating the “tremendous adaptation of all of these wonderful species in Hawai‘i.”

“We are gaining knowledge of how these species adapt and change to the current changing environment,” he says. “We need to continue to advance our understanding of these processes so that we can better predict how climate change and other forces that are changing the environment will impact the native species in Hawai‘i.”

Price says this work also showcases to the rest of the world how unique these species and environments are, and how these species and systems can be model systems for understanding how biodiversity is created and maintained throughout the world.

Student participation in research and field work is a primary focus of all Price’s scholarly activity. He routinely includes students—high school, undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral—in much of his research activity. Additionally, Price administers several major programs that aim to increase interest and hands-on student participation—especially students from minority and underrepresented groups—in biology and related scientific fields.

Don Price in fern forest with three students.
Don Price in the field conducting research with (left to right) high school students Carla Gorsich and Satomi Seki who are doing a short summer internship, and technician Sheryl Dohm. The group is in a kipuka (land surrounded by lava flows) on saddle road exploring different habitats that are suitable for studying Hawaiian Drosophila. The small flies naturally eat yeasts that grow on fermenting plant material, so the researchers spray sponges with fermented mushroom juice, hang the sponges in the forest to attract the Drosophila, and then sneak up to the sponges and carefully capture the flies before they fly away.

Price is lead organizer and current director of UH Hilo’s master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental sciences program. This is an interdisciplinary program in biology, marine science, geography, geology, chemistry and agriculture.

Price currently serves as principal investigator for an NSF GK-12 program, a partnership between UH Hilo and the Hawai‘i Department of Education to enhance the science curriculum in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We can train the students here in Hawai‘i with the most advanced techniques to become the leaders of the scientific community here in Hawai‘i and across the world,” he says.

From 2002 to 2009, Price was principal investigator of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop Research Experiences for Undergraduates at UH Hilo. Interdisciplinary, this program involved faculty from biology and marine science along with personnel from federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey. Ten students, many from underrepresented ethnic minorities, are in the program each summer.

In addition to his student-centered work, Price also has served as co-project director for a state-wide program called the Hawai‘i Experimental Program for Competitive Research (EPSCoR), funded by NSF. The Hawai‘i EPSCoR program is a collaborative project among UH Mānoa, UH Hilo, UH community colleges, and the Hawai‘i State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and is aimed at fostering the development of a diverse research and education portfolio for the entire state. In 2002-2009, Price was the key organizer and the primary grant developer for Hawai‘i EPSCoR, working with many administrators and researchers to develop and implement two successful grant programs for the University of Hawai‘i System totaling approximately $18 million.

Price continues to obtain grants that further his research and train Hawai‛i students to become the future scientists who will work to conserve the unique species in the state.


Prof. Price received his master of science in biology from Illinois State University and his doctor of philosophy in biology from the University of Illinois.


By Susan Enright, public information specialist, Office of the Chancellor.

Published March 18, 2013; last updated April 20, 2018.