Studying the Sex Secrets of a Snail Parasite

Curtis Lively and Jukka Jokela dive to collect snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, in Lake Alexandrina, New Zealand. (Image credit: Kirsten Klappert, Eawag/ETH-Zurich)

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

According to Indiana University evolutionary biologist Curt Lively, scientists have long wondered why clonal (asexual) reproduction does not replace sexual reproduction in natural populations. Recent research by Lively and his colleagues points to parasites as part of the answer, since the genetic variations that result from sexual reproduction may help the organisms avoid disease. Indiana University Bloomington and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology biologists collaborated on the research, which was reported in a July issue of Current Biology. The scientists' report represents direct experimental evidence for the "Red Queen Hypothesis" of sex, which suggests sexual reproduction allows host species to avoid infection by coevolved parasites because the potential hosts produce genetically variable offspring. The Current Biology report also supports the "Geographic Mosaic Theory," which says natural selection need not act uniformly on all members of a species, but can be intense in pockets of a population and absent elsewhere. An Indiana University press release explains the findings, while Curt Lively provides his answers to the ScienceLives 10 Questions below.

Name: Curt Lively Age: 55 Institution: Indiana University Field of Study: Evolution and Ecology

What inspired you to choose this field of study? Intriguing, unanswered questions, and the framework from which to study them.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? From a high school baseball coach: "Take care of the fundamentals, and the fundamentals will take care of you." (Although, I can't say that I have always done that.)

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I think it involved the optimal use of fireworks.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? The ideas, and the creative people who are drawn to them.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Dedication.

What are the societal benefits of your research? We study the evolution of diseases, including the evolution of virulence and the effect of parasites and pathogens on genetic diversity in natural populations, and the effect of host genetic diversity in combating the spread of disease.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? The people who asked general, wide-open evolutionary questions, like John Maynard Smith, G.C. Williams, David G. Lloyd, and W.D. Hamilton, as well as my thesis advisor, John Hendrickson, who was a curious and enthusiastic naturalist, who asked stimulating questions about everything. What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? Some people might be surprised by the depth and rigor of the mathematical framework underpinning evolutionary theory. If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? The handwritten data notebooks.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? The blues. "Everything else is zippity do da" (Townes van Zandt)