Akito Kawahara, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Curator of Lepidoptera

Florida Museum of Natural History

2019 Awardee

Akito Kawahara’s research program is focused on understanding biodiversity and the processes that lead to the extraordinary range of organisms on Earth.

Specifically, however, he focuses on butterflies and moths. This insect order has nearly 160,000 different species representing one of the four major insect variations.

“My research is both hypothesis and discovery driven,” Kawahara said. “My current research goal is to continue working on projects that help answer broad questions in biodiversity.”

Currently, one of the main themes of his research is using genome-scale data to understand the evolution of butterflies and moths.

“My research team discovered a surprising result: butterflies are not related to large moths but more closely related to smaller moth lineages,” Kawahara said.

This conclusion was followed by the submission of a recent study to Science, in which Kawahara spearheaded research efforts to understand the specific drivers that lead to the diversity of butterflies and moths. Results indicated plants, by means of providing flowers and leaves for larvae, allowed these insects to differentiate.

Both studies challenge a past historical understanding of butterflies and moths while providing an evolutionary framework for future genomic, developmental and ecological studies.

Since 2017, Kawahara has been implementing genome sequencing technology to sequence new moth and butterfly genomes. The project is being funded in part through a NSF GoLife “ButterflyNet” grant of $2.5 million and through a collaborative agreement grant with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Kawahara has also contributed to the 1000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution initiative (1KITE), a multi-institutional, international project of more than 100 biologists. The consortium published the first paper of many that utilized 1,478 genes to provide a new, robust phylogeny of insects. The study discovered new relationships between insects and provided the first robust fossil-based tree of insects and their relatives.

To date, Kawahara has published 121 papers, including 30 in 2018 and 2019. He has been awarded seven grants from the National Science Foundation and three from the USDA Aphis program, all totaling more than $7 million.