Indiana State University Newsroom

NIH awards professors with two-year grant for sparrow research

October 8, 2009

A recently awarded National Institutes of Health grant of more than $600,000 will allow two Indiana State University professors to take their research of white throated sparrows into the new field of genomics.

"We've not been able to do genomics research," said Elaina Tuttle, associate professor of biology. "This will take us in a new, modern direction."

Mark Green, associate vice president of academic affairs and chief research officer, said the research project's RO1 status is a major award mechanism through which large-scale research projects are funded.

"Their work in genomics shows that ISU is engaged in important research that aligns with the goals of the National Institutes of Health," he said.

Tuttle, along with Rusty Gonser, associate professor of biology, has spent 22 years researching the sparrows at Cranberry Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. That research ranges from genetics to ecology, all of which will help genomic research into the birds' sexual, social and parental behaviors, according to Gonser.

"Is there a link between genetics and behavior?" Gonser said as to what they will be examining. "We've been watching their behavior for 22 years so now we can go back and see if there are genetic links."

Often for researchers studying genetics, they make findings without knowing what those findings mean in the natural world.

"We can give these findings relevance by going back in the natural environment and determining the ‘so what'," Tuttle said about the genomics research.

Also, they will study the connection between chromosomal rearrangements and disease - something that could have a direct impact for human health.

"You wouldn't think birds have relevance to human health but they are the ideal model," Tuttle said.

"You can take a simpler organism and extrapolate to humans," Gonser added.

Also, the two professors noted the sparrow research builds upon a strong foundation of genomics research on chickens, turkeys, zebra finch, and even, California condors.

Research partners with Tuttle and Gonser are Oliver Ryder, director of genetics, William Modi, scientist, and Marlys Houck, a researcher, in the genetics division at the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. Other partners are: Teri Lear with the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky and Michael Romanov at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute.

Tuttle attributed being named an ISU Promising Scholar - a program funded by a gift from the Lilly Endowment that recognizes commitment to meaningful research and student learning - for helping further her research through the NIH grant.

"The Promising Scholars money allowed me to go establish relationships with the San Diego Zoo," she said. "Also, funding from the University Research Council helped us get the preliminary data and make the connections."


Gonser said the Darwin Speaker Series also helped forge a relationship with Lear, who was one of the noted speakers.


"When we invited her here we talked about a research collaboration," he said.

The two-year grant provides $320,115 for the first year and $309,853 for the second year. The money, which is part of federal stimulus dollars given to NIH through the Economic Recovery Act, will allow for the hiring of a post-doctoral researcher and up to two graduate assistants and well as five summer researchers.

Gonser also noted that the 110 days the team of professors and 10 students spend at Cranberry Lake each year puts money into a severely economically depressed area.

The sparrow research project is Cranberry Lake's longest-running, continuous research project and it began with Tuttle. She first journeyed to the lake as a graduate student working on her thesis project about sparrows and their mating systems.

"A lot of things contribute to (diversity)," Tuttle said. "Not only do genes contribute to that, but the environment contributes to that in a strong way. There are a lot of things going on with selection. In order to be able to make advances in not only human biology, but in environmental biology and in evolutionary biology, we need to understand these things. I think that the white throated sparrow not only helps us explain this diversity in nature, but explain diversity in particular things like ‘why is there behavioral diversity', ‘Why is there physiological diversity', ‘Why is there diversity in immune response.'"

Gonser, who began by researching parental care in the sparrows, said the growth in the number of people working on the research has also been a boon to the amount of data collected. When Tuttle started, she and two other students would gather data from about 25 nests. Now, with about 10 people working the site, they are able to collect data from up to 120 nests.

"We're trying to get closer to catching all of the birds from every territory, knowing everyone and just trying to collect every piece of information we can," Gonser said.


Contact: Rusty Gonser, Indiana State University, associate professor of biology, at 812-237-2395 or
Elaina Tuttle, Indiana State University, associate professor of biology, at 812-237-8442 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Cutline: Elaina Tuttle, associate professor, holds a white throated sparrow during 2007 summer research at Cranberry Lake in New York. ISU File Photo


Cutline: Rusty Gonser, associate professor, weighs a sparrow chick during 2007 summer research at Cranberry Lake in New York. ISU File Photo