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MSU’s Lenski Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

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During his ground-breaking E. coli Long-Term Evolution Project (LTEE), Michigan State University experimental evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski has witnessed the beginning and end of more than one lifetime—73,000 bacterial lifetimes and counting, to be exact.

Photo of Richard Lenski holding a research in a lab.

MSU’s Richard Lenski is the recipient of a prestigious 2021 Society for the Study of Evolution Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his remarkable research, outstanding mentorship and noteworthy service to the evolution community. Credit: Greg Kohuth

Now, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) is honoring Lenski’s extraordinary life to date with the prestigious 2021 SSE Evolution Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his remarkable research, outstanding mentorship and noteworthy service to the evolution community.

“What I love about studying evolution is that it encompasses all of life, from tiny microbes to the giant redwoods, and from dinosaur fossils to on-going changes that we can see happening in our lifetimes,” said Lenski, MSU John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology.

The SSE, now in its 75th year, was founded to integrate and promote the study of evolution in the fields of genetics, paleontology, ecology and anthropology, among others. The society publishes the peer-reviewed journal Evolution that features this research and provides a shared evolutionary perspective and language across all life sciences.

“Congratulations to Rich for this prestigious and well-deserved recognition of a truly outstanding career at the forefront of research and education in evolutionary processes,” said Phil Duxbury, dean of MSU’s College of Natural Science. “His leadership at MSU and in his research community is uniformly innovative and supportive of positive progress in research, trainee success and outreach to the public.”

Over his career, Lenski has advanced understanding on numerous fundamental evolutionary fronts, including the rates of adaptation, the predictability of evolution and the genetic pathways to acquire beneficial mutations.

Erik Goodman, founding director of the National Science Foundation’s BEACON Science and Technology Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at MSU, expressed the center’s pride for the immense contributions of the Lenski Lab to the study of evolution. Lenski helped co-found the BEACON Center in 2010.

“Rich and his lab have performed detailed and testable experimental studies of evolution in laboratory microbial cultures and have also demonstrated that digitally simulated evolution can be usefully applied to answering questions about evolution in nature,” Goodman said. “The members of the BEACON Center congratulate Rich Lenski on receiving the SSE Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been an inspiration for all of us.”

Prior to his research, the study of evolution typically involved examination of fossil records or comparative analysis of living organisms. Lenski fundamentally changed the field in 1988 to one that could be directly queried by laboratory experimentation when he inoculated twelve flasks with the bacterium E. coli in a simple growth medium. This was the beginning of the LTEE, one of the most significant experiments in evolutionary biology, and it would earn him the moniker, “the man who bottled evolution” from Science magazine.

The Lenski Lab has continued the experiment for more than 30 years, and they later added fast-evolving, “digital organisms” in the Avida system, an artificial life software platform, to expand their investigations of the dynamics and outcomes of evolution, including both genomic and phenotypic changes.

Lenski’s decades-long commitment to the next generation of bacteria is matched by his commitment to mentoring the next generation of scientists. He has worked with more than 30 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers who have gone on to faculty positions throughout the nation and world, and he has mentored dozens of undergraduate students who have entered careers in science, medicine and more.

“My favorite part of the award is that it says I’m known for being an exceptional mentor,” Lenski said. “What that means, of course, is that I’ve had the opportunity to work with exceptional students and postdocs.”

Lenski’s many recognitions include a 1996 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and election as president of the SSE in 2013. In 2017, the National Center for Science Education awarded him a Friend of Darwin award for outstanding efforts in defending the teaching of evolution. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and currently serves as a council member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lenski holds joint appointments in the Departments of Microbiology and Molecular GeneticsIntegrative Biology in the College of Natural Science, and in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He is also an AgBioResearch faculty member and is active in numerous programs, including the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Program and the BEACON Center.

Lenski will formally receive the award at the SSE virtual conference this summer. For more information on the SSE and Lenski’s award, please visit: https://www.evolutionsociety.org/.

Story via College of Natural Science 

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