Nitin Phadnis, an Assistant Professor of Biology, is trying to solve a genetics puzzle that has eluded scientists, and philosophers, for nearly two centuries – how do two species evolve from one species?
It is well known that speciation – the process by which one species splits into two – involves the evolution of reproductive isolating barriers such as the sterility or inviability of hybrids between certain populations.
And yet, in his masterpiece, “On The Origin of Species,” Darwin could not find a satisfactory solution to the apparent paradox of why natural selection would allow the evolution of detrimental traits such as sterility and inviability that diminish the chance of successful reproduction.
Darwin termed this problem the “mystery of mysteries.” The problem remains one of the most important and unanswered questions in biological research over the past 150 years.
In 2015, Phadnis led a University of Utah study that identified a long-sought “hybrid inviability gene” responsible for dead or infertile offspring when two species of fruit flies mate with each other. The discovery shed light on the genetic and molecular processes leading to the formation of new species, and might also provide clues to how cancer develops.
“We knew for decades that something like this gene ought to exist, and our approach finally allowed us to identify it,” says Phadnis, The results were published in the journal Science in Dec. 2015.
The 2015 study was part of a National Institutes of Health grant, titled, “The molecular basis of speciation in Drosophila.” The grant will provide nearly $300,000 per year until 2020 when it expires.
In 2013, when Phadnis joined the Biology faculty at the U, he was appointed the Mario Capecchi Endowed Chair in Biology. The position provided $40,000 per year for four years to support early research efforts at the U.
Then, in 2016, Phadnis was named a Pew Biomedical Scholar one of just 22 in the country to be selected that year. The accolade provides $75,000 per year until 2020.
Nitin was born in Mumbai, India and grew up in the nearby city of Pune. As an undergraduate student in microbiology, he studied novel culturing methods for bacteria. After three years of undergraduate studies, he joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, as an Integrated Ph.D. student in Biology. Nitin later received his doctorate degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Rochester in the laboratories of Allen Orr and Jim Fry.