Meghan Duffy. Image: Academic Innovation.

University of Michigan disease ecologist Meghan Duffy is one of 15 scientists awarded five-year grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation today to study symbiosis in aquatic systems.

Duffy, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, will receive $2,025,000 of unrestricted support over the next five years to pursue “innovative, risky research that has high potential for significant conceptual and methodological advances in aquatic symbiosis,” according to the Moore Foundation.

Current and emerging leaders in aquatic symbiosis research, as well as scientists who will bring their deep expertise from other areas of science to aquatic symbiosis, were selected from a competitive pool, according to the foundation.

“I am extremely grateful for the funding and especially for the Moore Foundation’s willingness to fund high-risk, high-reward projects, which otherwise are very hard to fund,” said Duffy, whose research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases.

Symbiosis occurs when organisms from two different species live together in intimate association. There are varying types of symbiosis—including parasitism, commensalism and mutualism—that reflect the degree of benefit and harm stemming from the association of the two species.

In parasitism, one species benefits greatly and the other is harmed. In commensalism, one species benefits, but there is no known impact on the other. In mutualisms, both species benefit.

The research funded by the Moore Foundation’s Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative is expected to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the origins, evolution, physiology, ecology and natural history of aquatic symbioses.

Another theme of the work will be understanding the factors that allow parasites to jump to new host species—something especially timely given the recent spread of the novel coronavirus. In the system that Duffy studies, she found that some parasites can easily move to novel host species, while close relatives can’t. The new Moore Foundation funding will help researchers understand why this is the case.