- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Molecular phylogeneticist Karl Kjer, the Schlinger Chair in Insect Systematics in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is the recipient of the 2016 Hodson Alumni Award, awarded annually by the University of Minnesota's Department of Entomology to a distinguished alumnus.
Kjer, who received two degrees from the University of Minnesota—his master's in 1988 and his doctorate in 1992--accepted the award from Stephen Kells, associate professor and chair of the department, and his close collaborator, professor Ralph Holzenthal, director of the Insect Museum. The award, established in 1998, memorializes Alexander Hodson, a former department chair.
Kjer delivered the University of Minnesota presentation on “Integrating Large Datasets, from Transcriptomes to Barcodes in Today's Phylogenetics" on May 18.
Kjer, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology last July following an 18-year career at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., is a co-founder of an international insect phylogentics team known as the 1000 Insect Transcription Evolution Project (1KITE). The project involved creating a database of transcriptomes or all the genes expressed in an insect at the time it is collected. The team developed state-of-the-art methods to analyze genetic data from the DNA of modern insects, and calibrate DNA “clocks” with fossil records. They then used massive super computers to estimate the pattern, and timing of insect evolution.
Kjer presented one of the 20 “Premier Presentations” at the 2015 Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting last November in Minneapolis. (Watch YouTube video.) He presented a plenary lecture at the Barcode of Life meetings in Guelph Ontario as his first task after arriving in Davis last fall. (Watch YouTube video.)
“By necessity, the project was split into three phases, the first of which, involving the analysis of 1478 genes from 144 species, has been published,” Kjer wrote in his ESA abstract. He discussed the phylogenetic results from this paper. The second phase of the work involved dividing insects into taxonomic divisions, or subprojects, which include dragonflies, grasshoppers and their close relatives, mantids and roaches, true bugs and lice, bees, wasps and ants, beetles, lacewings and their close relatives, flies, caddisflies, and butterflies and moths. These subprojects include data from 1500 species, and 3500-4900 genes. He discussed the progress on the subprojects.
The research project reveals that insects originated some 450 million years ago, around the same time as the first plants and that together they shaped the Earth's earliest ecosystem. Insects, such as dragonflies and damselflies, inhabited the earth 150 million years before dinosaurs.
The 100-member research team from 10 countries also discovered that insects first took flight 400 million years ago and were flying 200 million years before any other animal did so.
Their work was featured in a cover story, Nov. 7, 2014, of Science.
"Insects did just about everything first," according to Kjer. "They were the first to form social societies, farm, and sing — just about anything you can imagine. Insects are the dominant players in almost all terrestrial ecosytems, and as such, they have a major impact on agriculture and human health.”
Kjer has served as the associate editor of Systematic Biology since 2001. A member of the Society of Systemic Biologists and the Molecular Biology and Evolution Society since 1994 and ESA in 1986, he was elected from 2008 to 2012 to the Systemic Biology Council.
Kjer recalled that as a youth, he narrowed his career choices to three: entomologist, medical doctor or music teacher. He then double-majored in biology and music, graduating magna cum laude, in 1982 from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn. He taught music at a high school in Coon Rapids, Minn., for a year and then worked as a medical research lab technician in at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, Iowa City, until 1986.
After receiving his graduate degrees in entomology from the University of Minnesota, Kjer did postdoctoral work on lizards at Brigham Young University in Utah, before joining the faculty of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., where he served as a professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources and as a co-director of 1KITE. He also curated the Rutgers' insect collection.
At UC Davis, Kjer continues his teaching and research on phylogenetics and the integration of molecular biology and organismal biology. “I just love teaching and learning about insects,” he said. “I have been fascinated with them for as long as I can remember, and want to share this passion with our students at UC Davis. I believe that understanding evolution makes life richer.”
Kjer is the second UC Davis faculty member to receive the Hodson Alumni Award. Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, now emeritus, received the award in 2013.