Rebecca Roberts

Rebecca Roberts

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What I work with

My current research investigates the function and evolution of odorant receptors (ORs) in beetles, which are the most diverse animal group on earth. I work on ORs in several species of bark beetles from different parts of the world, including the Spruce bark beetle Ips typographus (Europe) and the Mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae (USA, Canada). These beetles infest coniferous trees, laying eggs and distributing symbiotic fungi, and can kill large areas of forest during outbreaks.

This project aims to identify and functionally characterise the ORs from these species which allow them to detect ecologically relevant odors such as sex pheromones and volatiles from host trees and to investigate the evolution of these receptors. I also work on the evolution and characterisation of ORs in a predator of bark beetles, the Red-bellied clerid beetle Thanasimus formicarius. Despite being very distantly related, this species can ‘eavesdrop’ on the chemical communication of its prey through convergent evolution. We use heterologous expression systems, primarily HEK293 cells, to functionally characterise the receptors of these ecologically significant species, with an overarching goal of contributing to the development of more efficient control methods for the destructive bark beetles.

My background

I am originally from the Sunshine Coast in Australia, and studied at the University of the Sunshine Coast (Yes, we do have kangaroos on campus!). After completing an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, I worked on the population genetics of endangered Australian rainforest trees for a couple of years before completely changing fields to work in molecular biology and chemical ecology.

During my PhD I studied the notorious Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster species complex), which is a predator of coral polyps and causes widespread coral mortality on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. My research focussed on identifying the molecular mechanisms underpinning olfaction in this species. I discovered many different receptors utilised by the Crown-of-thorns starfish which allow it to sense its environment and reproduce in such large numbers. These discoveries will hopefully pave the way for future research and the development of biological controls for this species, preventing further damage to fragile coral reef ecosystems.

I am passionate about research and teaching as well as science communication. Throughout my PhD I was consistently involved in tutoring, lab demonstrating and guest lecturing, as well as presenting at conferences, panels for Women in STEM and other community events and competing in several Three Minute Thesis (3MT) heats.


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