- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Professor Karl Kjer, newly appointed Schlinger Chair of Systematic Entomology in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and a co-founder of an international insect phylogentics team, will deliver one of the 20 “Premier Presentations” at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting, set Nov. 15-18 in Minneapolis.
Kjer, with colleagues from China and Germany, will discuss the 1KITE or the 1000 Insect Transcription Evolution project. This project involved creating a database of transcriptomes or all the genes expressed in an organism. 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.
Following the ESA presentation on “The 1KITE Initiative: Past, Present and Future,” Kjer will be interviewed onsite for a 2-3 minute video that will be posted online.
“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 writes in his ESA abstract. He will discuss 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 will discuss the progress on the subprojects.
“Because of the size of these data, we have modified protocols for virtually every step in the analytical pipeline, and these modifications will be discussed,” Kjer noted. “A large number of collaborative spin-off projects involving the development of new methods of analysis, and the molecular mechanisms of insect physiology. Finally, the entire project will be summarized in a book.”
Kjer, who joined UC Davis in July from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N. J., said that 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. The team used DNA data from 1400 genes to map out evolutionary relationships among all insect orders, said Kjer, one of three directors of the project. "Using only 10 percent of the data we have in hand, this paper resolved many of the long-standing debates about insect phylogenetics," Kjer said in a Rutgers news release. “Phylogeny forms the foundation for telling us the who, what, when, and why of life. Many previously intractable questions are now resolved, while many of the ‘revolutions' brought about by previous analyses of smaller molecular datasets have contained errors that are now being corrected.”
"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.”
Karl Kjer has loved insects since age 3 when he kept a “secret insect collection” in his family's garage in Whapeton, N.D.
But when it came time to choose a career, he narrowed his choices to three: entomologist, medical doctor or music teacher.
In college, Karl 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.
But entomology won. He entered graduate school to pursue his master's degree (1988) and doctorate (1992) in entomology from the University of Minnesota. After postdoctoral work on lizards at Brigham Young University in Utah, he joined 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.
Fast forward to 2015.
After an 18-year career at Rutgers, Kjer accepted the position of professor and Schlinger Chair of Systematic Entomology, in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at UC Davis.
Here, 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 would also like to use his endowed chair position to talk about science in general, “Support for basic science is dropping,” he said. He is deeply concerned with recent trends in the public marginalization of science. “From conservatives and liberals alike, we are seeing misguided beliefs that ‘vaccines cause autism' or ‘climate change is a hoax' and many other catastrophic falsehoods perpetuated in the blogosphere. If you need heart surgery, consult a heart specialist…not a plumber.”
“If you are over 40,” Kjer said, “you can probably thank your continued existence to science. Science deniers threaten the health and well being of every living thing on the planet, today, and deep into the future.”
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.