MSUToday
Published: Oct. 15, 2019

Richard Lenski receives prestigious interdisciplinary research, mentoring award

By: Marguerite Halversen Dry Grain Pulses CRSP office: (517) 432-6656 halverse@msu.eduContact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 osowskiv@msu.edu

Demonstrating that there is more than one way to pass on one’s legacy than just genetically, Michigan State University experimental evolutionary biologist, Richard Lenski, has been awarded the 2020 D.C. White Award by the American Society for Microbiology, or ASM,—the world’s oldest and largest life science organization—in recognition of his distinguished accomplishments, not only in interdisciplinary research, but in mentoring. 

The D.C. White Awardis named in honor of David Cleveland White, a microbiologist acknowledged as an exciting, thought-provoking and altruistic mentor and a leader in interdisciplinary science and in the field of lipid signature biomarkers. 

“This award is really special because it reflects the outstanding students and postdocs I’ve been privileged to work with over the years, as well as the terrific collaborators who’ve helped us take our work in exciting new directions,” said Lenski, MSU Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology. 

In his research, Lenski has focused on experimental evolution, essentially watching and quantifying evolution as it unfolds in experiments performed and replicated in his lab under controlled conditions for 30-plus years. The most famous is the E. Coli Long-Term Evolution Project, begun in 1988 when Lenski started 12 populations of E. coli bacteriafrom the same ancestor. These populations have evolved for more than 70,000 generations in identical environments, with his findings earning him the moniker, “the man who bottled evolution” from Science magazine. Lenski and his team continue to find fascinating new evolutionary changes in these evolving populations. 

On the mentoring side of the equation, Lenski has worked with more than 30 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers who have gone on to faculty positions throughout the nation and world. 

Additionally, Lenski and his team have mentored dozens of undergraduate students who have gone onto careers in science, medicine and more. Over the years, the lab has hosted several high school students and two high school science teachers during summers. 

Lenski’s lab team currently includes two postdoctoral researchers, several graduate students and several undergraduates, all of whom are carrying out research to understand the process of evolution in bacteria and using special computer programs that also evolve. 

“We know Rich for his extraordinary dedication to his trainees and to the pursuit of knowledge through interdisciplinary science,” said Victor DiRita, Rudolph Hugh Endowed Chair in Microbial Pathogenesis and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, or MMG, in the MSU College of Natural Science. “There is no more fitting recipient of this important award than Rich Lenski.”

In addition to MMG, Lenski holds joint appointments in the MSU Departments of Integrative Biology and Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. He is also an AgBioResearch faculty member and is active in numerous programs, including the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Program, the Genetics and Genome Sciences Programand the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.