Three projects awarded funding through the Innovation Funds for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences

Monday, Apr 18, 2016

Three projects have been awarded funding through the Dean for Research Innovation Fund for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences. The fund supports high-quality, early-stage research, and provides up to $100,000 per year for up to two years.

The winning proposals are:

A forensic approach to the study of food webs

From buffalo to bacteria, living things coexist in networks of interdependency known as food webs, but pinpointing their structure has been difficult. A better understanding of these networks could inform ways to manage the coexistence of wild and domestic animals and conserve biodiversity.

To explore food webs, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Robert Pringle and his team are using a forensic approach, sequencing DNA fragments in fecal samples of free-ranging African savanna animals to study their diets and the symbiotic gut bacteria that aid digestion. The goal is to characterize the food choices of animals — ranging from cows and camels to elephants and giraffes — and to explain how differences in dietary preference enhance the ability of these species to coexist. Pringle's previous work has shown that large herbivores are pickier eaters than has historically been thought, but little is known about how this dietary variation is related to the attributes of different plant species and the types of bacteria and fungi present in the animals’ gastrointestinal tracts. The Pringle team's forensic molecular analyses will provide information about interdependencies that may help to harmonize wildlife conservation and livestock production in Africa.

New studies of the Universe's past

The tiny temperature fluctuations in space left over from the Big Bang, known as the cosmic microwave background, offer a window into the origin of the Universe. To boost our ability to measure these fluctuations, faculty members Suzanne Staggs, the Henry DeWolf Smyth Professor of Physics, and Lyman Page, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Physics, along with colleagues from a dozen institutes around the world are designing a new telescope near Princeton's existing Atacama Cosmology Telescope in northern Chile.

The new telescope will have thirty times more detectors than its predecessor. However, it is not easy to pack 100,000 or more detectors into the telescope's two-meter-wide focal plane while cooling the device to near absolute zero, a necessary step when measuring such small temperature fluctuations. To address this challenge, the researchers will cool the focal plane using numerous, small hexagon-shaped cooling-chambers, or cryostats, that operate independently so that broken ones can be swapped out if necessary. These small cryostats, or "smallstats" will plug into a device called a cryogenic backplane that keeps the detectors cooled. The Dean's Innovation Fund award will go toward exploring how best to design and build the cryogenic backplane.

A novel intervention to control mosquito‐borne diseases

With Zika virus making headlines, international attention has turned to the issue of controlling mosquitoes. Yet, traditional methods for limiting mosquito populations, such as insecticides, have environmental costs and drive the rapid evolution of resistance. If more were known about mosquito mating behaviors, according to Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology Mala Murthy and Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Carolyn McBride, both of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, it might be possible to intervene to reduce mosquito populations.

The researchers will study sensory cues – acoustic, visual, gustatory and pheromonal – in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that are important for courtship and mating, and look at the underlying neural activity for these behaviors. Acoustic mating signals include the matching of wingbeat frequencies between males and females, but many other cues are not well established. The researchers will use gene-editing technology to express sensors of neural activity in the brains of Aedes aegypti. They will focus on neurons known to drive olfactory and auditory behaviors in flies, with the goal of finding promising avenues for mosquito-control strategies.