University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist Lynn Adler has won the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for her research demonstrating that different kinds of wildflowers can have markedly different effects on the health and reproduction rate of bumblebees.
My lab studies the role that flowers play in pollinator health and disease transmission. Flowers are of course a food source for pollinators, but, in some cases, nectar or pollen from specific plants can be medicinal. However, flowers are also high-traffic areas, and just like with humans, high-traffic areas can be hotspots for disease transmission. We're tracing how different populations of wildflowers can help or hinder pollinators, and what floral characteristics affect pollinators in which ways."
Lynn Adler, Biologist, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Adler's work is especially important given what many have come to call the "insect apocalypse," or the rapid world-wide die-off of insects due to climate change, pesticides and loss of habitat. By some estimates, up to 75% of insect life may have vanished in the past 50 years.
"It's an honor to have my research recognized by the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize," says Adler. "Pollinators are so important for the health of our world-;they affect everything from the abundance of our agriculture to flourishing biodiversity. It's validating to receive recognition of the practical, public importance of finding effective ways to help pollinators."
Established in 2018 by UMass Amherst alumni and siblings Richard, Robert and William Mahoney, the prize is an annual competition for scientists in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) at UMass engaged in high-impact life sciences research. It seeks to recognize and honor excellence, advance translatable research that addresses a significant challenge and enhance collaborative relationships between life sciences researchers and industry.
Richard Mahoney, former CEO and chairman of Monsanto, says, "We are proud to support the world-class research being carried out at UMass through the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize. It is critical that we do all we can to strengthen and promote the links between scientific innovation and industrial applications that solve critical problems and improve people's lives. Dr. Adler's research is exemplary, providing solutions for a crucial biological need and fostering the next generation of biologists as they pursue tomorrow's discoveries. The incredible breakthroughs that happen locally at UMass Amherst continue to place UMass at the forefront of research institutions everywhere."
The Mahoney brothers all received their chemistry degrees from UMass Amherst. They went on to become leaders in their own industries and have served as high-level alumni advisers to the university and as mentors to students.
CNS Interim Dean Nathaniel Whitaker says, "We are extremely grateful to the Mahoneys, whose generosity creates a critical bridge from research to real-world applications. In our rapidly changing world, the ability to apply new scientific understandings towards the world's greatest challenges is urgent."
Following a close review by an expert panel of life-science-industry scientists and executives, the $10,000 prize is awarded to one CNS faculty member who is the principal author of peer-reviewed research that meets the broader goals of the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, including advancing connections between academic research and industry.
Distinctive Aspects of Adler's Research
"Ultimately, I'm interested in the way that different flowers can either help suppress or spread diseases," says Adler. In one of her pathbreaking papers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, Adler and her co-authors sought to understand how different varieties of flowering plants influenced both pollinator health and reproduction.
The experiment her team constructed reproduced a real-life farming scenario, one where a farmer interested in maintaining local pollinators plants strips of wildflowers. The team erected a series of tents; underneath each one, Adler and her colleague planted canola, a flowering plant grown for its oil.
The team also included wildflowers strips underneath the tents. Though the species in the strips remained the same, the relative numbers of each species shifted.
Once the food sources were planted and the tents lifted above them, the team released bumblebees, some of which had been exposed to pathogens, into each of the tents. After two weeks in the tents, Adler and her colleagues counted the number of infected bees and measured colony reproduction.
What Adler found was striking. The bees in the tents in which canola was the only food source fared the worst in terms of reproduction, and moderately poorly in terms of health. All the bees in the tents with wildflowers showed increased rates of reproduction. But the rates of infection varied according to which wildflowers were predominant in the mix of wildflower strips; bees in tents with wildflowers that transmitted more pathogens had infections twice as high as those in tents with wildflowers that suppressed transmission.
"It's always good for pollinators to have wildflowers," says Adler, "but some mixes of wildflowers are healthier than others." Adler's ongoing research is delving into exactly why this is and what floral characteristics support pollinator health.
Richard Gregory, former head of research at Genzyme, one of the award's judges, and a UMass alum, says, "Adler's research is notable for its potential to impact the health and productivity of pollinators. Pollinators, including bumblebees, are in global decline and studies such as Dr. Adler's are critical to reversing this alarming trend."