2024 Harry Smith Prize awarded to Robert Masaki Hechler, for demonstrating the potential of environmental transcriptomics

Daphnia pulex (WikiMedia Commons, Paul Hebert)

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 Robert Masaki Hechler, now a PhD student working with Martin Krkosek at the Univeristy of Toronto.

With collaborators at McGill University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Hechler demonstrated the use of environmental RNA as an indicator of physiological responses to temperature stress in experimental microcosm communities, with Daphnia pulex as a focal species. The work appears in the paper “Environmental transcriptomics under heat stress: Can environmental RNA reveal changes in gene expression of aquatic organisms?”, which was published on the Molecular Ecology website last October.

In selecting Hechler’s study for the 20204 prize, the award committee of Jana Wold, Angel Rivera-Colon, and Arne Jacobs wrote

An accumulating body of studies had been published describing the use of environmental DNA to investigate species composition and distribution. However, the use of eRNA has been far less studied. Robert investigated gene expression changes in Daphnia exposed to heat-stress and control conditions in a common garden set up to show that eRNA collected from tanks shows similar patterns of gene expression changes compared to RNA extracted from Daphnia tissue. Therefore, this is the first paper, to our knowledge, to show that eRNA can be used to detect the molecular responses of macroorganisms to environmental stress, opening up a wide potential for further studies.

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

The award committee also recognized an “outstanding paper” as runner-up: Aurora García-Berro’s demonstration that migratory butterfly species maintain greater genome-wide genetic diversity.

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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