Lab News

June, 2021: New NSF Funding

Duane McKenna (PI) and Stephanie Haddad (Co-PI) have been awarded a $1.3 million, 5-year NSF grant jointly awarded by the NSF-DEB Systematics Program and the NSF-IOS Integrative Ecological Physiology Program. The grant is titled: Investigating chemosensory evolution in longhorned beetles using a comparative phylogenomic framework that integrates genomic, morphological, and biochemical data.

Chemosensation—comprised of smell (olfaction) and taste (gustation)—is a sensory modality that is ubiquitous among animals, is essential for their survival, and exhibits considerable variation. However, the evolution of chemosensation remains little-studied, especially in insects. We will address this lack of knowledge through integrated analyses of genomic, morphological, and biochemical data sampled methodically from across the family tree of longhorn beetles, a species-rich clade of plant-feeding insects (>35,000 species) which exhibit complex chemically-mediated interactions with conspecifics and plants. This project has implications for agriculture and forestry — longhorn beetles are important plant pests and pollinators — and will contribute to a better understanding of chemical communication (including pheromone use) and the evolution of specialized plant-feeding in insects.

June, 2021:

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2012 by nearly 100 governments worldwide to critically review available knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The 8th session of the IPBES Plenary took place virtually from 14-24 June 2021. CBio was admitted as a new observer organization at IPBES 8, and Dr. Duane McKenna, CBio Director, attended as an observer.

Wooden House in the Forest

June, 2021:

Duane McKenna, Seunggwan Shin, and Richard Adams published a paper titled Fifty million years of beetle evolution along the Antarctic Polar Front in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., along with colleagues from France and Australia. They demonstrated that some elements of Antarctic biodiversity are surprisingly rich and ancient. Their work has relevance to climate change and diversification paradigms involving the Antarctic biota, and is also relevant to the evolution of insect-plant interactions. A YouTube video summary of the research featuring lead author Dr. Helena Baird is here:

Image by Paul Carroll

January, 2021: CBio Guest Researcher

Dr. Rich Adams spoke with CBio about his research at the intersection between computer science and quantitative evolutionary genomics, including developing new algorithms, analytical tools, theory, and software for studying mathematical evolution, computational phylogenetics, and statistical genomics.

Image by Marius Masalar

October, 2020:

McKenna Lab contributes to a major paper on crickets, katydids, & grasshoppers in Nature Communications.

Sound-making and hearing mechanisms appeared surprisingly early in the evolution of the insect order Orthoptera (katydids, crickets, grasshoppers, and relatives), according to research published by an international team of researchers. The team included Dr. Duane McKenna and Dr. Seunggwan Shin. They worked closely with colleagues worldwide, including Dr. Hojun Song at Texas A&M University, who led the project. According to Dr. McKenna “This work involved one of the largest analyses of DNA data ever undertaken for a group of insects, and is notable for having illuminated the ancient origins of singing and hearing, and the otherwise remarkable evolutionary history of the charismatic insect order Orthoptera.” Their paper “Phylogenomic analysis sheds light on the evolutionary pathways towards acoustic communication in Orthoptera” showed that certain Orthoptera have been communicating to find mates, avoid predators, and navigate, for more than 300 million years—since well before the first dinosaurs. Drs. McKenna and Shin will continue to collaborate with Dr. Song through a recently awarded 5-year NSF grant seeking to further characterize the evolution of hearing and singing in this ecologically and economically significant group of insects.

Published paper:


September, 2020: Guest Researcher

Dr. Lynette Strickland, a postdoc at Texas A&M Corpus Christi spoke about her research on the genetics, ecology, and evolution of polymorphic Neotropical tortoise beetles on September 24 during the Monthly CBio group meeting. She will be moving to the University of Memphis to join the McKenna Lab as an NSF postdoc in April, 2021.

August, 2020: Paper Announcement

Dr. Duane McKenna published a paper in the journal Current Biology on the evolution of metabolic interactions between plant-feeding (phytophagous) leaf beetles and their obligate bacterial symbionts.

July, 2020: Conference Attendance

The McKenna Lab attended the 2020 Arthropod Genomics Symposium via Slack/Zoom beginning July 21.

August, 2020:

Dr. Seunggwan Shin has aaccepted a faculty position at the Seoul National University. Dr. Shin will continue to work with the McKenna Lab on several projects of shared interest as a Research Associate.

March, 2020: CBio Guest Researcher

Dr. John Tooker from Penn State University spoke on Wednesday, March 4, in the FedEx Institute. His talk was titled: Toxic Slugs Chart a Path Back to Integrated Pest Management.

Conservation-based agriculture is being heavily adopted in the certain regions of the U.S. to help reduce erosion and provide other benefits. No-till farming and diverse rotations that include cover crops are the primary ingredients in current interests in conservation agriculture. Unfortunately, many farmers are inadvertently handicapping their production systems by overusing pesticides, particularly insecticides. Dr. Tooker’s team has revealed that Integrated Pest Management is a key component to maximizing the production of these conservation-based systems. Dr. John Tooker is an Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University. His research group studies relationships among plants, invertebrate herbivores, and natural enemies to understand factors that regulate populations of herbivorous insects and slugs. The long- term goal of his research is to exploit ecological interactions for sustainable insect pest management.

January, 2020:

McKenna Lab contributes to a major paper on arthropod genomes in Genome Biology.

The evolutionary innovations of arthropods – the most diverse group of animals on Earth – are as numerous as they are fascinating, from fangs, silk and stingers to exquisitely colored wings and ingenious feats of engineering. Some arthropods contribute vital ecosystem services, including pollination and decomposition, while others are pests of agriculture or spread diseases.


An international team of scientists, including researchers from the McKenna Lab, report the results from a project designed to kickstart the sequencing of genomes from thousands of arthropod species (the Insect 5,000 Genomes Project; i5k). The gene families found to be most dynamically changing in arthropod genomes encode proteins linked to digestion, chemical defence and the building and remodelling of chitin - the major constituent of the arthropod exoskeleton. Newly evolved gene families underlie functions known to be important in different arthropod groups, including visual learning and behavior, pheromone and odorant detection, neuronal activity and wing development.

UM press release:

Published paper:

November, 2019:

Major paper on Beetle Genomics & Evolution Published in PNAS

The McKenna Lab published a paper in PNAS, titled: “The Evolution and Genomic Basis of Beetle Diversity”. The paper details how ancient horizontal transfers of microbial genes to beetle genomes set the stage for beetle diversification. The study was funded in part by NSF. UM co-authors included postdocs Seunggwan Shin & Dave Clarke, graduate student Cristian Beza, and undergraduate Peyton Murin.

UM press release:

Published paper:

Select news stories: (begins at 31:15)

November, 2019:

CBio announces Biodiversity Scholars Award Program for incoming PhD students

See here for more information.

November 2019:

The McKenna Lab attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America in St. Louis, MO (Nov. 17-20). Seven presentations were given on topics ranging from beetle genomics and evolution, to aphid-plant interactions and the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on tropical forest beetle diversity.

October, 2019:

Cristian Beza successfully completed his PhD dissertation defense. Dissertation title: Island Biogeography in the continental New World Tropics: Reconstructing the phylogeny & evolution of the Mesoamerican Bess Beetle tribe Proculini (Coleoptera: Passalidae).

September, 2019:

Dr. Duane McKenna, Professor of Biological Sciences and CBio Director, attended the 9th Insect Phylogeny Meeting in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Duane McKenna & collaborator Na Ra Shin (Max Planck Inst. for Chemical Ecology; Jena, Germany).

September, 2019:

Dr. Stephanie Haddad, Research Assistant Professor, has joined the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Haddad will contribute to research development for the McKenna Lab and CBio.

April, 2019:

The McKenna Lab attends the ASB Meeting

The Annual Meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biologists was held at the Memphis Cook Convention Center from April 3-6, 2019. The meeting was attended by 6 CBio faculty members as well as graduate students and postdocs. Collectively, 8 presentations/posters were presented.