I’m delighted to announce a new paper published today in the Biology Letters, coauthored with Colin Carlson at Georgetown University and a CSUN undergrad researcher, Gio Gomez. In it, we examine a big collection of floral visitation records and find a pattern that pollination biologists have talked about but never quite directly demonstrated: the symmetry of flowers seems to shape the diversity of animals that visit them, and potentially provide pollination services. Here’s a brief “lay summary” we wrote to accompany the article:
For centuries, botanists have understood that the symmetry of flowers — whether or not they are “zygomorphic”, with a single line of symmetry — shapes how they attract and interact with pollinators. We examined 53,609 records of animal visits to flowers in 159 communities around the world, and found that zygomorphic flowers are visited by fewer potential pollinator species. This may explain broad patterns in the diversity of flowering plants, in which zygomorphic flowers are associated with faster formation of new species. It also suggests that plant species with zygomorphic flowers may be at greater risk of extinction due to pollinator loss.
This is an exciting paper because it’s my first foray into pollination ecology proper, and because of its place in that broader field of research — and also because it’s the first paper I’ve published with a student coauthor since starting on faculty at CSUN. On top of all that, the project has been a really nice bridge between my interests (mutualism) and Colin’s (host-associate community ecology), and it’s kicked off a collaboration that has produced some even more exciting results, coming soon to a preprint server near you.
Local adaptation, in which populations of a species become better able to survive and thrive in their home environment than in conditions found elsewhere in the species’ range, is a widespread pattern that evolutionary biologists have long used to study the causes and consequences of natural selection. My newest paper, which is now online ahead of print in The American Naturalist, combines data across many studies of local adaptation to answer a persistent question about the history of life on Earth — has evolution been influenced more by selection arising from environmental conditions, or by interactions among living things?
If I’m really going to take my digital life off Facebook, I have to get serious about tending to a more distributed version of that site’s functions. Exhibit A is my Flickr account, which I’ve gotten lax with updating — I was almost a year behind with uploading images there! The holidays have been a good chance to catch up, though, and I’ve finished updating through a trip to Spain and France for fieldwork last June.
I was there to take samples of Medicago truncatula along the Spanish and French Mediterranean coasts — ridiculously pretty territory, even when a snafu with my car rental meant I had to do a fair bit of collecting by mass transit and rental bike. I flew into Madrid (with a layover in London), then to the Spanish coastal town of Málaga; then I spent most of a week in and around Narbonne, France, and finished with a day in Paris before flying home (again via London). It was my first time in both Spain and France, and my first time in Europe in more than a decade.
Medicago truncatula, or barrel clover, a member of the legume family that hosts bacteria in its roots. The bacteria transform nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into fertilizer for their host plant, and the host feeds the bacteria with sugar. Experiments with barrel clover and its mutualists have shown that signals between the plant and the bacteria are important in this interaction, and provide an inspiration for the evolutionary models built by Yoder and Tiffin. (Flickr: jby)
I’m very excited to see this in virtual print — it’s a new model of coevolution between mutualists that takes into account signals between the partners as well as the benefits they provide each other (or don’t).
Yoder JB and P Tiffin. 2017. Sanctions, partner recognition, and variation in mutualism. American Naturalist doi: 10.1086/693472.
Mutually beneficial relationships between species, or mutualisms, are ubiquitous in the living world, with examples ranging from flowering plants that rely on animal pollinators to fish that clean the teeth and scales of other fish. Mutualisms are often imperfect — one partner or the other varies in the quality of the help it provides. Evolutionary theory predicts that this should break up the relationship, but most mutualisms hold together in spite of partners that take the benefits of mutualism without properly paying them back.
This paradox may be explained by the fact that there’s more to mutualism than trading goods or services. This is a key result of mathematical evolutionary models published in the American Naturalist by Jeremy Yoder and Peter Tiffin, biologists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Minnesota. Yoder and Tiffin built a mathematical evolutionary model of mutualists that communicate before trading resources, and compared it to simpler models with only resource-trading or only communication. In the model with communication and resource-trading, host could “sanction” by cutting off resources to prevent poor quality partners from taking over, but evolution of the signals sent by partners and the hosts’ response to those signals maintained variation over time. Neither of the simpler models could do this. With only resource-trading, sanctions eliminated all poor-quality partners, and all variation; with only communication, poor-quality partners took over the mutualism.
CSUN is about as close as possible to the ideal place to do the kind of science and scholarship I want to do — a large, diverse public university with strong support for teaching and research, and great colleagues studying ecology, evolution, and every aspect of the living world. Campus is located within half an hour’s drive (well, maybe an hour with traffic) from sites where I studied Joshua trees as a graduate student, and it has good facilities and an excellent climate for growing my favorite legume, too. (I’d be remiss if I failed to mention, as well, that CSUN should be familiar to fellow fans of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as the alma mater of one Joshua Felix Chan.)
To extend a metaphor I used in an essay about being a postdoc last year, I feel like I’ve finally been called up to the big leagues. I’ve already submitted my first pre-proposal for NSF research funding with CSUN affiliation, with collaborators from the Joshua Tree Genome Project, and I’m making plans to hit the ground running with that project and others when I officially arrive on campus later this summer.
Comparing metrics of diversity (x axis) and geographic differentiation (y axis) for thousands of genes in the Medicago truncatula genome (gray points) reveals that some symbiosis genes (red points, crosses, and triangles) are genome-wide outliers — but they are not all the same kind of outlier. Yoder (2016), Figure 1.
Different hypothesized models of mutualism stability predict different forms of coevolutionary selection, and emerging high-throughput sequencing methods allow examination of the selective histories of mutualism genes and, thereby, the form of selection acting on those genes. … As an example of the possibilities offered by genomic data, I analyze genes with roles in the symbiosis of Medicago truncatula and nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria, the first classic mutualism in which extensive genomic resources have been developed for both partners. Medicago truncatula symbiosis genes, as a group, differ from the rest of the genome, but they vary in the form of selection indicated by their diversity and differentiation — some show signs of selection expected from roles in sanctioning noncooperative symbionts, while others show evidence of balancing selection expected from coevolution with symbiont signaling factors.
The paper is my contribution to a Special Section on “The Ecology, Genetics, and Coevolution of Intimate Mutualisms”, which I co-edited with Jim Leebens-Mack. You can view the whole Special Section here, and download my paper here [PDF].
My visualization of key data from Verne Grant’s 1949 paper showing that floral traits are more likely to be important in the taxonomic descriptions of plant species when those species are pollinated by animals — which suggests that those plant-pollinator interactions play a role in the formation of new species.
I got word this morning that the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology, a huge compendium of current knowledge on evolution, systematics, and ecology, is now online. That’s exciting in and of itself, but it’s particularly so because it means you can finally see my contribution, the introduction to the topic of coevolution. Here’s the opening paragraph, of which I’m rather fond:
No organism is an island. Every living thing contends with predators, parasites, and competitors, and most also receive benefits from mutualists (Table 1). These interactions with other species exert natural selection—and predators, parasites, competitors, and mutualists may also experience selection in return. The mutual evolutionary change that results from this reciprocal selection is ‘coevolution’ (Janzen 1980; Thompson 2005).
The rest of the Encyclopedia includes contributions from a tremendous array of other authors, and I’m grateful to subject editor Andrew Forbes for the invitation to contribute. You can browse the whole thing on the publisher’s website, and download a manuscript-format PDF of the final text of my chapter here.
The first peer-reviewed paper from the Queer in STEM survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer scientists, engineers, and research professionals is now online ahead of print in the Journal of Homosexuality. It’s the first big, nationwide study of LGBTQ career experiences in the sciences — a potentially important resource to inform the policies of scientific employers and professional organizations.
Some of the most important points in the paper, which I wrote with collaborator Allison Mattheis, are
There are a lot of LGBTQ folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — we had more than 1400 responses from STEM professionals across the United States, and in several other countries. (Edited to add: Does this mean LGBTQ folks are well represented, as a proportion of everyone working in STEM? We can’t tell from this dataset — but that’s something we hope to work on in a follow-up study.)
Most survey participants reported being completely open about their LGBTQ identity with their friends and family, but a large subset of them were not open at all with their colleagues or coworkers. (This is similar to the results of a survey of U.S. workers released by the Human Rights Campaign last year.)
Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they described their workplace as safe and welcoming.
Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they worked in a STEM field with better representation of women (see the figure below). This suggests that in fields with poor gender balance, the climate may be less comfortable for anyone who fails to conform to a straight male gender presentation.
Queer in STEM participants were more likely to be open to colleagues if they worked in STEM fields with better representation of women, as estimated from the U.S. National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) report. Regression with all STEM fields (solid line), p = 0.31; with Psychology excluded (dashed line), p = 0.02.
I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a new postdoctoral position as part of the AdapTree project at the University of British Columbia, starting in mid-August. The work I’ll be doing with AdapTree is a dramatic extension of the landscape genomic research I’ve done with Medicago truncatula, studying the genetic basis of adaptation to different environmental conditions. For AdapTree, the focal species are lodgepole pine — Pinus contorta ssp. latifolia — and two species of spruce — Picea glauca, P. engelmanni, and hybrids between them. Using genetic data from thousands of trees at hundreds of sites across British Columbia and Alberta, and growth and performance measurements in big climate-controlled experiments, I’ll get to help figure out what it all means for the future of northern forests.
Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the data, it’s going to be fantastic working with the AdapTree collaborators, which include many biologists whose work I’ve long known and admired: Sally Aitken, Michael Whitlock, Loren Rieseberg, Jason Holliday, Katie Lotterhos, and Sam Yeaman, among others. On top of all that, I get to do it at UBC, one of the premier North American universities for evolutionary ecology, and in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. Really, this will be a return to the northern Pacific coast community of biologists where I “grew up” as a graduate student at the University of Idaho, but I’ll be coming back with four years of great experience and learning from my time at Minnesota.
This year at the Evolution meetings, for the very first time, the conference organizers offered presenters the option of having our talks filmed by graduate student volunteers. Naturally, I had to try this out—and the result isn’t half bad!
If only I’d pointed myself at the microphone more consistently. And said “umm” about three times less frequently. And maybe worn a nicer shirt …