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Into the Field

Into the Field
Ulrich Mueller, recent recipient of the E.O. Wilson award, crouches above a leafcutter ant mound at the Brackenridge Field Lab in Austin. He's been monitoring ants at the lab for a decade in concert with his work in Central and South America. Photo: Marsha Miller.

Ulrich Mueller at Brackenridge Field Lab

In his acceptance speech for the E.O. Wilson Award at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, Dr. Ulrich Mueller reminisced about the summer that changed the course of his career.

“I was a second-year graduate student, taking a field course in Costa Rica,” says Mueller, the W.M. Wheeler Lost Pines Professor of Integrative Biology. “We were taken around the country and taught about the different ecosystems by some of the top tropical and evolutionary biologists in the world. On the first day, they did an exercise called ‘50 Questions,’ where we were sent out into the forest with a notepad and a pencil, and told to write down 50 questions about anything we saw that was interesting to us.”

Unlike most of his fellow students, whose questions ranged all over the flora and fauna of the forest, Mueller got fixated on one leaf, and on the growths that had accumulated on it over the course of its exceptionally long life cycle.

“I had never seen that before,” says Mueller, “a leaf with growth like that. I wrote 50 questions about that single leaf.”

During the rest of his time in Costa Rica, Mueller studied these growths. He grew especially interested in the relationship between the toxic compounds in the growths and the leafcutter ants in the forest that cultivated fungus—by feeding them leaves—in special “farms” in their nests (the fungus, in turn, produce nutrients that feed the ants).

“I investigated, among other things, whether the deterrence chemical in these growths was toxic to the ants or toxic to the fungus,” says Mueller, “and that short study led directly to where I am today, to my interest in looking not just at genetics, or microbiology, or animal behavior, or ecology, but all of it together. It all traces back to that forest.”

Mueller’s doctoral thesis ended up focusing on another topic, but he continued studying the fungus-growing ants, as a side project, while in graduate school. After school, the ants became the long-term subject of his research, and he developed a particular interest in the “co-evolution” of the ants and the fungus which they farm. He also became increasingly dependent on the interplay between the kinds of molecular analysis possible in the lab and the knowledge that can only be obtained out in the wild.

“The molecular information only makes sense if you can interpret it in the context of the ecosystem in which it evolved,” he says. “If you’re interested in what makes the world tick, you have to take it into the field.”

Since Mueller’s been a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, “the field” has meant two, complementary things. He spends time in the tropical forests in Central and South America (in Panama and Brazil, in particular), where the fungus-growing ants practice their unusual form of agriculture. He also conducts studies locally, at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in Austin, and at the Stengl Lost Pines Research Station in Smithville, Texas.

“UT is one of the few places in the world where there’s such a strong community of people who straddle both modern evolutionary-genomics and natural history,” says Mueller. This combination, says Mueller, isn’t just nice from a personal perspective (i.e. he has a lot of colleagues who share his interests); it’s also positioned the department well going forward.

“Even ten years ago, when I joined the faculty here, getting genetic information was the bottleneck in biological research,” he says. “Soon, though, with the ongoing revolution in DNA sequencing, the bottleneck will be the natural history information. It will no longer be the genetics that limits us, but the natural history. We’ll be looking for the ecological and evolutionary contexts to make sense of the genetic information.”

The E.O. Wilson Award, says Mueller, was a nice recognition to get because it was a validation of the unique strength of the integrative biology program, and also because it was given to him by the kinds of people—naturalists—who had inspired his research in the first place, back in the forest in Costa Rica.

“They cared,” he says, “about taking me out in the field and teaching modern evolutionary theory in a natural setting.”

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Saturday, 29 January 2022

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