March 2020: Rokyta Lab attends the North American Society of Toxinology (NAST 2020) Conference

In early March of this year, members of the Rokyta lab attended the North American Society of Toxinology conference (also known as Venom Week) in Gainesville, Florida. The NAST is a multidisciplinary organization that brings together basic scientists, medical clinicians, veterinarians, animal scientists, antivenom researchers, and many others to promote the advancement of all things venomous. We had a great showing this year as 10 members of the lab presented their work as either platform talks (Dr. Timothy Colston, Schyler Ellsworth, Mike Hogan, Gunnar Nystrom, and Micaiah Ward) or posters (Kylie Lawrence, Lucy Fry, Laura Koffinas, Rachel Saul, and Emily Weedon). Schyler won the best scientific talk for his presentation “Toxin Diversity and Molecular Evolution of Scolopendra Venom,” and Micaiah was a student talk award winner for her talk “Identifying Toxin-Targets Through Experimental Evolution and Genome-Wide Association Studies”. Great job Schyler, Micaiah, and the Rokyta lab!


Rokyta Lab Hits the Florida Keys! (Photo Credits: Jason Colston)

After celebrating the holidays, we couldn’t even wait one day to get back into the field! On December 26, 2019, Schyler Ellsworth (PhD student), Gunnar Nystrom (PhD candidate), Tim Colston (Postdoc), and Dr. Rokyta hit the road for a weekend trip to the Florida Keys in search of venomous invertebrates. We were primarily interested in collecting Scolopendra alternans, a large species of centipede found across the Keys. However, while searching for S. alternans, we also found another species of centipede, Rhysida longipes. In 2015, the Rokyta lab published a short article revealing the establishment of R. longipes in the Florida Keys. During this trip, however, we found R. longipes on several of the Keys, providing new information on the known range for R. longipes. Fortunately, we collected what we needed on our first day and could spend the rest of the weekend searching for chameleons and other invasive lizards. We were even lucky enough to observe a three-meter American crocodile on the boat ramp at Black Point Marina and Harbor!


Searching for Invasive Centipedes in Hawaii

In December 2019, Gunnar Nystrom (PhD candidate) traveled to the island of Maui in Hawaii. Although there are no snakes on the Hawaiian Islands, some of the islands are home to several species of invasive centipedes. Scolopendra subspinipes, which goes by a variety of common names, such as the Vietnamese centipede or the Chinese red headed centipede, is the largest centipede species found on the island of Maui. Scolopendra subspinipes can grow up to 20cm long and are reported to have an extremely painful bite. Although not considered native to the Hawaiian Islands, S. subspinipes is widespread across parts of east Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and the Caribbean. While searching the tropical rainforests on Maui, Gunnar was able to find S. subspinipes at incredibly high densities. In addition, he also found another invasive species of centipede, Otostigmus scaber, which was unexpected. Overall, not a bad place to do some fieldwork!


Rokyta Lab at the 2019 Tallahassee Science Festival


During the week of November 23, 2019, the city of Tallahassee hosted their annual science festival. The Tallahassee Science Festival offers an incredible opportunity to share our research with the greater Tallahassee community. For this year’s festival, Rokyta lab members Schyler Ellsworth, Kylie Lawrence, and Gunnar Nystrom joined other graduate students from the FSU Ecology and Evolution Reading and Discussion Group in setting up a science themed booth. We had a great time showing some of our harmless invertebrate species to visitors and educating them about centipede, scorpion, and spider venoms! If you missed us this year, we plan to be back next year and would love for you to stop by!


Arizona/California inverts 2019

This July, Gunnar Nystrom and Schyler Ellsworth, two PhD students in the Rokyta Lab, drove across the U.S. to Arizona and California to study venom from different scorpion and centipede species. The primary goal was to collect preliminary data for Gunnar’s dissertation project. He is particularly interested in studying the role of antimicrobial peptides in the venom of the giant desert hairy scorpions (genus Hadrurus, shown below). Because some species in this genus have been observed to spray themselves with their own venom, it is thought that their venom may play a role in microbiome regulation. Luckily for us, scorpions have a compound in their exoskeleton that fluoresces under UV light, which makes them easy to find in the desert at night!


Biology Awards 2018

On November 14th, 2018, the FSU Department of Biological Science held their annual awards ceremony. The Department gives awards to undergraduate and graduate students to recognize scholastic and scholarly achievement. At this year’s ceremony, the Department awarded over $40,000 to deserving students. The Rokyta Lab’s own Micaiah Ward won several awards recognizing her hard work and scientific excellence. Micaiah is a graduate student in the Cell and Molecular Biology program and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. The Trott Scholarship will provide funds to support Micaiah’s research and is awarded based on the importance and originality of the proposed research. Micaiah received the Thrower Scholarship, which is awarded to a Ph.D. candidate who has demonstrated outstanding academic achievement. Finally, Micaiah received the Margaret Menzel Scholarship, which is based on faculty nomination to recognize graduate students for outstanding achievement in their research. 2018 has been a busy year for Micaiah! In addition to these awards, she won the award for Best Short Talk at the Gordon Research Conference on Venom Evolution, Function, and Biomedical Applications. Additionally, she was chosen to host the first Gordon Research Seminar on Venom Evolution, Function, and Biomedical Applications in 2020. On top of all these awards, Micaiah has already published five papers this year, including an invited review article. Congratulations on an incredible 2018, Micaiah!


Venom Week 2018

In March, the Rokyta Lab traveled en masse to Venom Week 2018. Venom Week is a meeting held every other year by the North American Society of Toxinology. Attendees included a diverse group of basic, translational, and applied scientists, a variety of clinicians, and even zoo keepers. Venom Week is about any and all things venom! This year it was hosted by Texas A&M-Kingsville in Kingsville, TX, home of Dr. Elda Sanchez and the National Natural Toxins Research Center. The Rokyta Lab drove out to South Texas, stopping along the way for a night of camping, sausage dogs, and story-telling in Sam Houston National Forest. Laura Koffinas, Simone Gable, and Rachel Saul (three undergraduates in the lab) presented posters detailing their work in the lab. First year graduate students Schyler Ellsworth and Gunnar Nystrom presented posters on their work characterizing the transcriptomes and proteomes of invertebrate venoms. Second year graduate student Mike Hogan gave a talk on his recent work trying to understand the genetics of vomeronasal organ receptors in the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Postdoc Carl Whittington gave a talk on his recent work that uncovered the biophysical and evolutionary origins of Mojave toxin, a potent rattlesnake neurotoxin. Dr. Rokyta gave an invited keynote talk where he demonstrated the highly synergistic research in the lab through three projects focusing on the composition and evolution of rattlesnake venoms. His talk won the award for Best Basic Science Presentation! The meeting provided plenty of time for socializing and networking, and, in typical Rokyta Lab fashion, road cruising! The next Venom Week will be held in Gainesville, FL in 2020.


Full house

Michael Hogan sent me the picture below from the lab last week. The image is from one of our two lab spaces, and I think it is nicely representative of what I love about my lab group. In this picture, we have one postdoc (Carl), two PhD students (Micaiah and Mike), and three undergraduates (Gabrielle, Laura, and Elizabeth). Carl is using a computational approach for characterizing effects of mutations on bacteriophage capsids. Micaiah is murdering Drosophila with centipede venom. Gabrielle, Laura, and Elizabeth are feeding our collection of venom invertebrates. I am going to pretend that Mike has some RNA extractions or RNA-seq library preps set up out of frame…


Venom extraction

Michael Hogan put together the video below of a new(ish) venom extraction protocol he developed. We are always working to improve the live-animal techniques we employ to reduce the stress and discomfort to the animals and the risk to the handlers. Good technique, but I am not so sure about the music…

Mark is out of here

Well, Mark Margres successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis entitled “The Genetics of Adaptation of Island Rattlesnakes” on November 8, 2016. He then braved driving across the country in the middle of winter to Pullman, WA, where he joined Dr. Andrew Storfer’s lab at Washington State University. Mike Hogan kindly produced a video of Mark’s defense talk (below).