Friday, June 12, 2009

Day 2: Genomics of speciation

The second day at Kristineberg has mainly been devoted to the genomic basis of speciation and the genetics of postzygotic isolation. Interesting talks by Michael Nachman, Hopi Hoekstra, Axel Meyer and Dave Presgraves. In general, though, it has been a bit too much about postzygotic isolation, though, to my taste. This, however, reflects that it is a meeting that was organized by Hans Ellegren, whose main interests are in these genomic aspects of speciation and evolution.

Again, my general feeling from yesterday remains: the field of speciation have reached the phase of "normal science", where there are not that many exciting discoveries or new concepts, but rather a lot of "problem solving" and filling in of the gaps. This might not necessarily be a bad thing: when fields are too hot and fast moving, the best science is not necessarily made because people tend to jump on bandwagons and reflect very little once they are on those bandwagons.

I had an interesting lunch discussion with Trevor Price today about the role of learning in evolution, particularly the role of learned mate preferences. This was quite refreshing, since Trevor thinks learning is extremely important and underestimated in the speciation process (as I also believe). When I first brought up the issue of learned mate preferences in on of our lab-meetings about 1 1/2 years ago, I saw mainly a lot of blank faces in the room, but I am more convinced than ever that this is one of the most exciting areas of speciation research in the future (and our coming postdoc Machteld Verzijden would probably agree, I suspect). It is also a natural area where field ecologists and behavioural ecologists could make important contributions and add to a more balanced picture of the speciation process than we would have had if we only relied on genomics data from Drosophila-research.

Another general reflection of this meeting is how large resources many research groups in the US have, compared to us in Sweden. This is particularly evident when it comes to genomic studies, such as large-scale DNA-sequencing efforts, transcriptomics, "454" and microarrays. All these techniques cost a lot of money, more money than we can ever dream of getting in Sweden with the current research financing system. So how then to seriously compete with these groups?

Perhaps the correct answer is not to try to compete at all, but rather try to specialize in areas where these groups are weaker, and not be too frustrated that we do not have access to similar large-scale genomic resources. Our main strength in Lund is our ecological and experimental tradition, not primarily our skills in genomics. This is also where we have to profile and advertise ourselves in the future, as this is an area that separates from other departments. In that sense, we have to push or Linnaeus-programme CAnMOVE in the future and emphasize the strong Lund research tradition of animal movement, dispersal and migration (and the consequences thereof).

Hans Ellegren, the organizer of this meeting, actually suggested that we in Lund should organize a similar meeting about animal movement in the future, and this seems like an excellent idéa. If there is something I think has been missing at this meeting, it is the field experiments and studies on animals in their natural environments, including mate preferences in the wild and dispersal behaviours.


  1. What a nice review of this apparently very interesting meeting about speciation. I fully agree that we Lundians should focus on other topics, and not necessarily take up competition with super-financed US labs. We should rather build on and refine our experimental approach to ecology, and focus on profile areas such as animal movement and dispersal.

  2. Anders:

    Hear hear!!!! Indeed, and I agree with everything you say ("Jag tycker som du Anders", to paraphrase some of our older colleagues at an Oikos-meeting in Uppsala in the nineties...).

  3. Thanks for the updates, Erik - I think the meeting sounded great! I'd like to play devil's advocate here, though, about genomics and the place of Lund in biological research. Why is it that by doing genomics the molecular folks at Lund are competing with US labs? Can't the genomics crowd make valuable contributions even if they aren't #1 in funding? Surely there are plenty of labs around the world that have more resources than many labs in Sweden for doing ecology, yet Sweden has made great contributions to ecology (and evolutionary ecology). It seems to me that it is just a matter of carving out an answerable set of questions. It may not be the best strategy to try to build a monster, high throughput facility in Lund (though I wouldn't try to dissuade a motivated person) , but one can still do interesting genomics. The lineup at that meeting was world class, after all! It's a pretty tough comparison -- competition that many (most?) genomics labs in the US would find relatively resource rich as well.