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One of the hallmarks of living organisms is the change they induce in their abiotic and biotic environments. For instance, earthworms affect soil structure, beavers build dams, bees construct nests, trees lower light levels under their canopies, butterflies pollinate flowers, etc. Through their development, physiology, and behavior, organisms alter the world in which they live and these effects can feed back to influence their ecology and evolution. This process has been labeled niche construction (or, alternatively, ecosystem engineering). Using a combination of analytical, simulation-based and lab-experimental techniques, we study different biological systems that possess strong niche construction elements, including fire-prone flora with plant traits that enhance flammability, learning organisms that alter the form and frequency of their stimuli, bacteria that produce anti-bacterial toxins, and hosts and pathogens that continually coevolve. Recently, we have focused on how the incorporation of spatial structure can drastically affect the eco-evolutionary dynamics of these and other niche construction systems. We have also started to explore (both theoretically and experimentally) how altruistic forms of niche construction evolve in relation to various forms of population structure.
Ben Kerr received his Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Stanford University in 2002. While at Stanford, he worked with Marcus Feldman on modeling the evolution of flammability in resprouting plants, the evolution of animal learning, and the evolution of altruism. He also worked with Brendan Bohannan on experimental evolution within microbial systems and with Peter Godfrey-Smith on some philosophical issues arising in the levels of selection controversy. Ben then spent three years as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota, where he worked with David Stephens on modeling impulsive behavior in blue jays, with Tony Dean on the evolution of cooperation within a microbial host-pathogen system, and with Claudia Neuhauser on spatial dynamics within model population genetic systems. Ben joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 2005. Current work focuses on the "evolution of interaction" ranging from the scale of communities (e.g., evolution of cooperation, communication, and virulence) to individuals (e.g., evolution of multicellularity, development, learning, and plasticity) to molecules (e.g., evolution of gene networks, protein interactions, and epistasis). Members of the lab use mathematical models, computational approaches, and evolutionary experiments with microbes (viruses, bacteria, and yeast) to explore these themes.