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October 5, 2006

MBL Scientist Awarded Fellowship to Study Helpful Bacteria

Jennifer J. Wernegreen

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—With all the over-the-counter products designed to kill disease-causing bacteria these days, it’s easy to forget that many microorganisms are actually vital to our own survival. Many organisms, including humans, develop mutually beneficial relationships with microbes.

Jennifer J. Wernegreen, an evolutionary biologist in the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, has received a fellowship that will help support her studies of mutually dependent relationships that some bacteria develop with their animal hosts.

Wernegreen’s research focuses on bacteria that live inside the tissues or cells of insects and other animals. After living without exposure to the outside environment for millions of years, many such bacteria have lost the ability to perform basic metabolic functions. Instead, they depend on their host animal to survive. Meanwhile, many of the animal hosts have evolved as well, becoming dependent on the bacteria to produce essential nutrients essential to their own survival.

Wernegreen studies the bacterium Blochmannia, which lives within an insect commonly found on Cape Cod—the carpenter ant. She hopes to determine which genes of the bacteria are active at different stages of the host ant’s life cycle and within different castes: the queen, workers, and reproductives. She is especially interested in the genes responsible for producing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. When ants are unable to obtain food, such as during the enclosed pupal stage of development or while a new queen keeps herself sheltered as she establishes a colony, they depend on bacteria to produce the necessary amino acids.

In Lab

As part of this research, Wernegreen and members of her lab have collected specimens of different developmental stages and castes of local carpenter ant species. They are now developing procedures to examine the bacterial genes active in each ant caste and to begin exploring the functions of those genes. Wernegreen and her colleagues at the MBL’s Bay Paul Center have access to high-throughput DNA sequencing equipment. This cutting-edge equipment, typically found at much larger institutions and used for large-scale efforts like the Human Genome Project, provides opportunities for MBL scientists to conduct in-depth genetic studies of natural communities.

The fellowship awarded to Wernegreen honors the late Neal W. Cornell, a biochemist who was a senior scientist at the MBL from 1988 until his death in 2000. Prior to conducting year-round research at the MBL, Cornell was a summer investigator and visiting scientist for many years. His research focused on the biochemical aspects of cell structure and function, the regulation of central metabolic pathways, and the molecular aspects of growth and development. “He had the highest level of integrity and excellence as a scientist and a person,” Wernegreen said.

Cornell and his wife, Molly, established the MBL Research Development Fund in 1997 to support year-round research at the MBL. At the time of his death, the Neal W. Cornell Endowed Research Fund was established in his memory. Both of the Cornell funds contributed to Wernegreen’s award and are intended to support scientists in the early stages of their careers. "Like many other scientists, my husband developed a great fondness for the MBL as a result of experiences as a young summer investigator. He knew from his own experience the importance of support to someone who is starting out on their own independent research," said Mrs. Cornell.

“Neal would be very pleased that Jennifer was selected to receive these awards,” Mrs. Cornell added. “She’s given not only to the MBL but to the community at large.” For instance, Wernegreen has participated in the Woods Hole Science & Technology Education Partnership (WHSTEP), including a mentoring program at the Lawrence School in Falmouth, where local scientists and engineers mentored junior high students as they designed science projects.

“Having known Neal and Molly makes this award all the more meaningful for me” said Wernegreen. “Dr. Cornell had an important influence on my getting started at the MBL,” she said, "And through these funds, he continues to have a big impact on me and other young scientists.”


The MBL is an international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information or to join the MBL Associates, visit www.MBL.edu