Faculty Spotlight: Emily Lemmon

| Thu, 01/25/24
Emily Lemmon, a professor in the Department of Biological Science.
Emily Lemmon, a professor in the Department of Biological Science. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Emily Lemmon is a professor in the Department of Biological Science, part of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Lemmon earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Saint Mary’s College at Notre Dame in 2000 and her doctorate in ecology, evolution, and behavior from the University of Texas, Austin in 2007. As the Moriarty Lemmon Lab’s principal investigator, Lemmon aims to answer how new species arise, and her co-created anchored phylogenomics method led to the establishment of the FSU Center for Anchored Phylogenomics.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

As a teenager in Lawrence, Kansas, I became interested in herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. After teaching myself how to capture animals and reading every book I could find on the subject, I ran out of resources. Shortly after, I had the good fortune of being mentored by biologists at the University of Kansas’ Museum of Natural History, enabling me to begin research.

This interest grew in high school when my Advanced Placement biology teacher took our class to the Florida Panhandle. As a graduate student, I traveled back to the Panhandle every winter to conduct research. The area began to feel like home, so when I was offered a faculty position at FSU in 2009, I was thrilled!

Can you break down your areas of research?

Integrative biology spans multiple sub-disciplines. Our goal is to understand how new species evolve. Recently, my lab has switched gears to study speciation mechanisms through computational modeling and neuroscience. We investigate how changes in auditory neural circuits can explain the divergence of reproductive behaviors during the evolution of new species.

What makes you interested in studying phylogenomics?

Generating a tree of relationships among organisms is the first step before studying how traits have evolved. I needed reliable phylogenies to address broad questions about the factors contributing to speciation.

When my husband, professor of scientific computing Alan Lemmon, and I started our positions at FSU, progress in phylogenetics was being impeded by the slow rate at which molecular data could be generated. We invested our new faculty start-up funds to solve this issue. After three years of trial and much error, we finally had a breakthrough, leading to the method we termed “anchored phylogenomics.”

Tell us about the specialized gene sampling technique you co-created, the anchored phylogenomics method.

It is a method of sub-sampling the same set of genes across a broad group of organisms, which can then be sequenced quicker and cheaper than sequencing entire genomes. Our method uses bioinformatics analyses to capture the genes, a molecular lab and high-throughput sequencer to generate the data, and then more bioinformatics to process the data and reconstruct evolutionary trees. After publishing our paper introducing this method in 2012, we received so many demands for collaboration that we opened the FSU Center for Anchored Phylogenomics in 2013, bringing in around $4 million in contracts to FSU.

Tell us about the research you conduct involving chorus frogs.

We use experimental approaches to examine how species populations become reproductively isolated from each other through the evolution of their mating behaviors. The chorus frogs we study live in grass and leaf litter of woodlands and fields most of the year. Rainstorms trigger their breeding events, causing them to gather in large numbers, from dozens to hundreds of individuals, in temporary wetlands and ditches filled by rainwater.

Chorus frogs are especially interesting because they undergo speciation-in-action, meaning they are actively splitting into multiple new species in new generations. During this process, different populations are diverging from each other in mating behaviors, such as male acoustic signals and female preferences for these signals. Females are choosing to mate with males that have their local call and avoiding calls of males from other populations. These strong preferences for local males lead to reduced gene flow among populations, which can ultimately lead to speciation among these populations.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

Studying non-model systems like chorus frogs in their natural environments grants insight into some questions that cannot be answered with model organisms like lab mice. Chorus frogs represent a unique, relatively simple vertebrate system in which we can study numerical counting abilities of the brain. By leveraging our knowledge of the evolutionary history of this system, we can determine whether neural divergence during speciation is predictable or if natural selection produces multiple evolutionary solutions to the same problem — thus accelerating the rate at which new species can arise.

Tell us about the Moriarty Lemmon Lab.

My lab started with three graduate students in 2009. Today, my lab includes two doctoral students and 15 undergraduate researchers, and we emphasize undergraduate mentoring. Our research is focused on modeling auditory neural circuits to predict cellular and molecular changes that contribute to the divergence of reproductive behaviors seen in nature. We test these predictions through behavioral and neurophysiological experiments on frogs from natural populations.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

My collaborators and I are working to understand the genetic basis of reproductive behaviors used in species recognition. This will eventually enable us to connect genotypic, or the genes that are inherited, to phenotypic, how genes are expressed, divergence during new species formation.

What is your best memory so far from working at FSU?

During our first year at FSU, my husband and I had our first baby, and department members secretly designed and made an entire quilt, given to us as a baby gift. The gesture made me feel truly welcome in my new community. That quilt still hangs on our now 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom wall.

If your students only learned one thing from you, what would you hope it to be?

Hard work and perseverance are the keys to achieving your goals. Just like the tortoise and the hare, the students with persistence — even if they aren’t the most gifted or talented — are the ones who succeed.