Hello! If you’ve reached this site, it’s probably by using the QR code available at one of my field sites in Southeastern Michigan. Here are some FAQ with answers–please get in touch with me if you have other questions, and I’ll answer them!
What’s the experiment?
The experiment you’re seeing is one that I am doing to discover whether patterns that we have observed in the lab are true for animals that live their lives in the real world, instead of the cushy, predatorless environment of the lab. Specifically, what I want to know is whether wild cricket moms vary the amounts of development hormones they give to their eggs–lab moms definitely do. This has important consequences for lab eggs–the ones with more hormones grow faster and give their eggs more hormone, but the ones that have less hormones grow more slowly. However, we don’t really know whether this happens in real-live crickets out in nature.
Okay, but why do you care?
What we’ve found so far (using lab crickets) is that the amount of hormones a mom gives to her eggs is determined by both her genes and her environment. This isn’t very surprising. The surprising part is that the environmental influence (independently of genes) can reach across multiple generations. So, what a grandma cricket eats can influence how much hormone her grand-offspring give to their eggs. This is pretty exciting, because it means that there is a nongenetic mechanism of inheritance. However, we don’t know whether this is a real thing in wild crickets, or whether it’s just kind of a strange phenomenon in lab crickets.
But why crickets?
I’m glad you asked! Crickets are a great system to study these effects in, because they naturally vary the concentrations of hormones they give to their eggs (which makes them kind of like a natural experiment–we don’t have to dose some animals with more or less hormone, they do it themselves). They’re also very easy to raise in the lab, we know a lot about what makes a cricket “good” in terms of its behaviors and attractiveness to mates, and they have much shorter generation times than humans. Plus, I think they’re kinda cute. Way cuter than cockroaches, which were one of our other options for studying this phenomenon.
So you really find cricket hormones that interesting, huh?
It’s true! I do!
But what I find even more interesting is that the things we are finding in crickets have been found in other species–even humans! Transgenerational (affecting more than one generation) environmental (not genetic) effects are powerful things, and we are only beginning to understand how they work. For a long time, we thought that everything in biology was specifically written into our genes, and the future of biology research would be to try to translate all of that. Then we found that genes can be ‘edited’ by the environment to be more strongly expressed or less strongly expressed. Now we are discovering that these environmental edits can be passed from generation to generation. Studying transgenerational environmental effects in crickets is an easier way to get at really cool brand-new information, and that’s why I find cricket hormones so interesting.
But can your research actually help people?
Yes, definitely. Understanding transgenerational environmental effects is going to have huge implications for all areas of biology, including human medicine and nutrition. I read somewhere recently that most of our current technology uses discoveries that were made about 50 years ago, so it may take that long for the things we’re learning from crickets to become directly applicable to humans. However, trying to understand this sort of phenomenon (transgenerational environmental effects) in humans can be a lot harder than using an organism that is (in many ways) simpler. For one thing, humans live much longer than crickets–and for another, it’s not okay to do some of the experiments we’d need to do using people. People first studied genetics using plants and fruit flies, and now we can also study it in humans. Crickets are a good first step–and there are a lot of other people out there studying similar effects in other animals (and plants) too.