The Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute (BPRI) was funded by the National Science Foundation in 2020 as one of four inaugural Biology Integration Institutes (BII). The goal of the NSF-BII program is to bring researchers together around the common goal of understanding how the processes that sustain life and enable biological innovation operate and interact within and across different scales of organization, from molecules to cells, tissues to organisms, species, ecosystems, biomes and the entire Earth.

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of a genotype to produce different phenotypes in response to different environmental conditions – is ubiquitous in nature, and occurs across all scales of biological organization. To fully understand its mechanisms, maintenance, and evolution, complete biological integration is needed. Locusts are grasshoppers that can form enormous migrating swarms through density-dependent phenotypic plasticity known as locust phase polyphenism. At low density, they are solitary and harmless grasshoppers, but at high density, they become gregarious and voracious pests that migrate. Locust phase polyphenism is one of Nature’s most spectacular example of phenotypic plasticity, and this phenomenon also provides a powerful comparative system for understanding how gene expression patterns and epigenetic regulation are linked to shifts in behavior, physiology, and ecology that result in outbreaks, collective movement, and mass migration.

The BPRI is established as a cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary Biology Integration Institute to comprehensively dissect this phenomenon and use it as a model system to transform the study of phenotypic plasticity. 

The study of locust phase polyphenism has broader impacts beyond basic science. Once vividly recorded in ancient literatures such as Bible and Quran, locusts still occur to this day and affect the livelihood of one in ten people on Earth. Currently, multiple continents are experiencing massive locust plagues that threaten food security. Understanding the mechanism of this transformation holds the key to developing effective methods of control. Using cutting-edge technologies in research projects spanning from molecules to landscapes, the BPRI will greatly enhance our understanding of locust phase polyphenism and develop innovative solutions to manage locust plagues. 

The vision of the BPRI is predicated on integration through collaboration. We recognize the scientific and societal impacts are maximized when groups of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to work towards shared goals and the common good. This philosophy will inform all BPRI activities.

The BPRI is a virtual institute consisting of researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M University, Arizona State University, Washington University in St. Louis, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and USDA ARS.