American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

2022 ASN Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Conceptual Unification of the Biological Sciences

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Laurent Keller

The Distinguished Achievement in the Conceptual Unification of the Biological Sciences Award, previously known as the Sewall Wright Award, was established in 1991 and is given annually to honor a senior investigator currently making fundamental contributions to the Society's goals in promoting the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

The 2022 award honors Laurent Keller, Professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Laurent previously won the Society's E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award in 2005. Laurent is past president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology and of the Swiss Zoological Society, and winner of the Marcel Benoist and Ernest Dubois awards, among others.

Laurent’s selection is based on his contributions to integrating ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and behavior. Much of his life's work has focused on addressing fundamental questions about animal societies and social life, with studies focused primarily on the social organization and behavior of ants. Laurent made multiple advancements in understanding within-colony conflict, genetic components of social insect differentiation, mechanisms of aging, and the genetic basis for social organization. In the same vein, Laurent’s research success features work with many long-term scientific collaborators and a large cadre of post-doctoral and doctoral trainees.

One of Laurent's early contributions was to extend our understanding of the dynamics of within-colony conflict. By manipulating several social attributes, he identified key factors influencing the level of within-colony cooperation. This work also led to the discovery of multiple mechanisms that evolved to prevent within-group conflict.

Laurent went on to develop genetic and genomic tools to study the evolution of reproductive systems in ants. He demonstrated that the key determinants of social organization, including the differentiation of queens from workers, have a genetic component in species like the invasive Argentine ant in Europe. These findings also led him to discover several unknown systems of reproduction, including cases where males and not just females could reproduce clonally.

Continuing in this tradition, Laurent collaborated with Ken Ross from the University of Georgia to further explore the genetic basis to social organization in the Red Imported Fire Ants in the southeastern United States. They identified a 13Mb genomic region that determines colony queen number and regulates behavioral traits of both queens and workers. These traits, in turn, affect the social organization of the colony. This genomic region also has reduced recombination and thus forms a so-called social chromosome that plays a similar role to Y chromosomes in mammals, providing an interesting example of a tightly linked epistatic regulatory network.

His more recent work tackles the timeless question of aging. Laurent showed that social life can increase lifespan 100× compared to solitary insects. Moreover, he developed a system to study aging that makes use of the 10× difference in lifespan between queens and workers.

Laurent's interdisciplinary research has resulted in an impressive number of publications – more than 350 at last count – with many appearing in top journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS. Laurent has also been an important mentor to graduate students and postdocs, with more than 40 of them in tenure-track or tenured academic positions.

—Mark C. Urban, Chair, on behalf of the Award Committee: Ellen Ketterson, Michael F. Antolin