2023 Harry Smith Prize awarded to Antonino Malacrinò, for harnessing open data to study how microbiome communities settle on their hosts

Termites, like Reticulitermes flavipes, are famously dependent on specific gut microbiota; many other insects are less reliant on microbial symbionts (Flickr: Dann Thombs)

This year’s Harry Smith Prize, which recognizes the best paper published in the field of molecular ecology by an early career scholar, has been awarded to Antonino Malacrinò, now an Assistant Professor at the University of Reggio Calabria, Italy. Malacrinò contributed the invited synthesis “Host species identity shapes the diversity and structure of insect microbiota,” published in the February 2022 issue of Molecular Ecology. Malacrinò assembled publicly available sequence data from more than 4,000 samples of insect-associated microbes to test whether insects’ microbial symbionts are shaped by shared evolutionary history — or assembled on a much faster, species-specific time scale.

The award committee, Kaichi Huang and Arne Jacobs, note in their decision letter that the work both demonstrates the value of open data, and identifies continuing issues in its accessibility for new, synthetic analyses:

Antonino’s article suggests that host species identity has a wider impact on the structure and diversity of microbial communities than the other factors such as diet, sex, life stage, sample origin and treatment. Notably, Antonino found that a wide portion of published studies actually does not include essential information to compare their data within a wider meta-analysis, or to even replicate their work, thus highlighting the importance of the commitment to open data policies. As a consequence, this paper not only provides novel scientific findings in insect microbiota, but also shows that open data is an extremely powerful tool that enables new discoveries.

The winning article is available Open Access at the Molecular Ecology website.

The award committee also recognized an “outstanding paper” as runner-up: Alexander J. Blumenfeld’s study of social adaptation to urbanized environments by the widespread ant Tapinoma sessile.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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