Thursday, November 24, 2011

Congratulations to Tina for obtaining postdoctoral grant from The Swedish Research Council

Former PhD-student from our lab Kristina Karlsson-Green have just found out that she has been awarded a postdoctoral grant from "The Swedish Research Council" (VR), so that she can go to University of Helsinkki (Finland) for two  years and work with Junior Project Leader Dr. Anna-Liisa Laine, who is part of the famous "Metapopulation Ecology Research"-group lead by Professor Ilkka Hanski, who visited Lund and Sweden earlier this year when his research as a recipient of prestiguous "Crafoord Prize".

In Finland, Tina will work on a project with butterflies on the interface between sexual selection, parasites, host-pathogen interactions and trophic interactions. The study species will be the famous butterfly The Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia,; see picture above), who among its host plants also have Plantago lanceolata, which is infected by a fungal pathogen, which in turn has cascading effects at higher trophic interactions, such as those between the butterflies and parasitoids. This seems like an extremely exciting cutting-edge scientific project with links to community ecology, behavioural ecology and coevolutionary processes, and it will be very interesting to hear about the results from the planned studies.

Tina's success in obtaining one of these highly competitive postdoctoral research grant is mainly her own accomplishment, and shows her quality as an independent young scientist. Still, as former advisor, I feel very proud of her, as well as for my first PhD-student Jessica Abbott, who was able to obtain a "Junior Project Grant" earlier this month from VR.

Students and postdocs from this research lab are doing remarkably well in the stiff competition for grants and scholarships. Why this is so is up to others to analyze, and it is probably some kind of interaction effect between personalities in our group, as well as with other colleagues in our department. Whatever the reason(-s), I am very confident that these grants are not the last and that this positive trend  in grant success will continue in the future. The best thing we can do, and a good investment for the future, is to keep up with our regular lab-meetings and interesting scientific discussions about papers and science, encourage and stimulate each other, communicate our findings and joy on this blog and maintain a good spirit and positive attitude towards our work. In the end, I am convinced that these things are far more important than large grants.  Well done Tina!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Democracy on the biology department website.

My frustrations with the biology department website have come to a boil, and the safety valve is this blog. So here comes some steam... which might be put to some good use in powering change?

What brought my hissyfit on this time is that I was trying to advise someone who will be visiting Lund, who he might want to talk to while here. He does not know this department by heart, and, like everyone else, has a busy schedule, without oodles of time scouring the website.

Which is what you would need to figure out who all is here and what they are doing. Our department website is, as a matter of fact organized by the politics of research groups very much like ancient Greece was divvied up in city states. To find people in our group, first you'd first have to click on 'research' from the main page of the biology department, then on a tiny little link called 'research groups', then on another tiny little link called 'phenotypic evolution'. I'm not saying that's a bad way to describe what we do, but hardly the only one. Further more, if you'd be interested in finding, say, me, you'd have to know intimately what kind of research I'm doing in the first place.
Right now, this website is reflecting political associations, and if you look very carefully, with 20 years of history of this department in mind, you can see political strife, where people do and don't want to be put in a certain box (read research group names).
That, in my humble opinion, is not what a website is used for, or should be used for. Political associations within a department are NOT interesting to anyone outside this department, and should not be known intimately in order to be able to navigate this website. Which, as Erik pointed out, may be a slightly naive way of thinking about a website. Well....

Ok, that was my rant. Here comes the constructive part. Let's break out of the tyranny of the city states and have... democracy (yes, I have been reading up about ancient greek history, can you tell?). Let's be more fluid, let's stop playing hide and seek with visitors to the biology department website. I envision two ways of finding people/research:
1) By a person's name, which will link to their personal website.
2) By list of keywords which will link to a list of people's names who have indicated themselves that they want to be associated with those keywords. Yes, multiple. We all do diverse things. Let's celebrate diversity.... power to the people.. (ok, I get carried away..).

So if you were to surf around on the biology department website, and you'd click on 'research' you'd find 2 tabs: one labelled 'people', the other 'research subjects'. I would be listed on the people page with my straightforward name 'Machteld Verzijden', and on the research subjects page, I might be listed under a number of keywords, like 'evolution', 'behaviour','sexual selection','damselflies'... The research subjects page would show lots of keywords, maybe they'd be clickable themselves, then showing a list of names, or it could simply be a header with names of people under that word. Get creative, I think this could work well in a number of ways.

And so, the outsider visiting the department website would get an immediate overview of who is here (people site) and what kind of things we study (keyword site), and have several ways of finding people or research groups. This way, we don't have to remember who is (and who is not) associated with which small or large research group, the name of which might not make a lot of sense to outsiders. This way, no one will have to spent 1.5 hours finding where Anders Hedenström's webpage is, as was the case for Shawn, and me spending an equal amount of time where Jan-Åke Nilsson's page is located, without having to resort to mr Google. Also, if you don't know who is working in Lund, but you have a research interest, you might actually be able to find some people working in your area of interest.

There, glad that's off my chest. I'll get off my soap box now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The 18th "Blodbadet" 2011

 I was invited to give a talk at the 18th Blodbadet, which is an annual meeting of the Zoology department at Stockholm University. The meeting took place at the Tovetorp research station, and included five invited speakers: Kerstin Johannesson (Gothenburg University), Alex Weiss (University of Edinburgh), Christopher Wheat (University of Helsinki) and John Bishop (Washington State University Vancouver) and myself (Lund University). PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from Stockholm and other Universities were also presenting their research, which made the 2.5 days of talks refreshingly diverse. The topics ranged from animal personalities, to parallel speciation, and the significance of eye spots as anti-predator behaviour and of course, a variety of talk on the evolution and ecology of damselflies and butterflies. I truly enjoyed the talks and meeting this diverse range of people, and left the meeting with lots of new ideas. 

Here is a photo that was taken at the meeting
Maren Wellenreuther

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On speciation in TREE

This coming Wednesday's lab-meeting (November 23), we will discuss two recent speciation-reviews, both published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution during the last year (2011). One is by Maria Servedio et al. and is entitled: "Magic traits in speciation: "magic" but not rare?" and can be downloaded here. The other one is by Roger Butlin and a number of co-authors and is entitled: "What do we need to know about speciation?" and can be downloaded here. The latter paper does also have an online discussion attached to it, where I and several others (including Maria Servedio) commented, and you might also want to check this discussion here, as well as a recent previous post on our blog here, and on the blog of Andrew Hendry and co-workers here.

Note that Hendry's group has written a criticism of Servedio's et al's article, which you can assess through the TREE webpage (unfortunately I do not have the links here, as there is problem with the university server at the moment).

Time and place as usual: "Argumentet" at 13.00 (Wednesday November 23, 2011).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interesting interview with Richard Dawkins on the political implications of "The Selfish Gene" and the "God Delusion"

Here is an interesting interview with popular science writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, famous for his book "The Selfish Gene" from 1976, which revolutionized the general public's view about the evolutionary process, in particular the role of gene selection, as opposed to naive group selection.I found this video as I was looking for material for an undergraduate course that I am teaching entitled "Human Biology & Evolution". 

It is worth watching, particularly since Richard Dawkins clearly explains what selfish genes are, and what they are not. In particular the crucial notion that selfish genes do not imply that individuals must be selfish, but rather the converse: selfish genes might often results in altruistic individuals. This crucial point has apparently been missed by the many right-winged libertarians and free-market ideologists, who wrote many letters to Richard Dawkins after the publication of his book to express their admiration and support. In this video, Richard Dawkins is very clear about his own view about such political idéas, which are strong in the right-wing segment of the US population: he does not support them at all.

As Dawkins states in the video above: "I have voted to the left in Britain in  my whole life". Selfish genes do thus by no means justify unregulated marked capitalism, although many wishful thinkers on the right side of the political spectrum have tried to exploit the title of his book for their own ideological purposes. As a matter of fact, Richard Dawkins have even stated that an alternative title of his book could very well have been "The Altruistic Organism".

It is important to be fair to Richard Dawkins, as there is actually some serious criticism that can be directed to both his idéa about the overall importance of gene selection, and his rather dogmatic dismissal of higher-level selection, such as at the level of groups, populations or species. Here, I think he is wrong, and there are many leading evolutionary biologists and population geneticists who would agree that group selection can indeed work in many ecological situations, including David Sloan Wilson and Michael J. Wade. 

There are many conceptual problems with Richard Dawkins strict separation between "replicators" (genes) and "vehicles" (organisms) that forms the basis of his whole argumentation that gene selection will always outpower higher-level selection, and some of these problems and logical pitfalls are discussed here.

Personally, I do als think that Dawkin's stance on religion is both unproductive and not very sophisticated, in terms of the nature of the criticism, as expressed in his too hyped book "The God Delusion". Apparently, Dawkinshas also recently stated that he partly regrets that he wrote this book (or should I say pamphlet?). The God that he describes in that book is more of a charicature of religion as he perceives it, than actually depicting the true beliefs of most religous people.

My own personal view, as an atheist, is again much closer to my fellow atheist David Sloan Wilson's view that religion has evolved for some reason, and hence can be treated as a problem that one can study in the light of evolutionary theory. That view strikes me as being a more intellectually fruitful and interesting approach towards understanding religion than just pointing fingers and treating it as a disease, which Dawkins tends to do.

What do we need to know about speciation? Interesting TREE-review and discussion at Cell Press

Some of you might already have seen this, but I wish to draw your attention to an interesting TREE-review entitled "What do we need to know about speciation", published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, and authored by Roger Butlin and co-workers in the FroSpecs-network (an ESF-funded research network focussed on speciation research). As you know, FroSpecs funds speciation conferences, meetings and small symposia, including one in Jyväskylä (Finland) next year, and one organized by us after the ISBE-meeting in Lund in August 2012 about behaviour, adaptive and non-adaptive speciation and ecological and non-ecological speciation.

The review by Butlin et al. aims to identify the most important future questions in speciation research in the coming years, and the article is also accompanied by an online discussion, where I was invited to participate, together with several other biologists, including Mike Ritchie, Maria Servedio and Andrew Hendry, to name some of our friends and colleagues. I encourage you to follow both the discussion and read the original article. In terms of speciation discussions, I would also like to recommend an interesting (albeit long!) blog post about "magic traits" on the research blog of Andrew Hendry.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lab-meeting on how to write a succesful application to VR: Part 2

On Wednesday November 16 (update: 13.00!), we will have a follow-up lab-meeting about strategies how to write a succesful application to VR, particularly in relation to the new form of grant directed to young researchers: "Junior Project Grants". This time, we  have invited two of the succesful grantees this year: Jessica Abbott, and Olof Hellgren.

Both these young scientists will participate in the lab-meeting and share their experiences about the application process and participate in the discussion. They will also tell us a little about their projects and what they want to do in the future.

I will start the discussion by re-iterating some of the general points and messages from the previous meeting, and give some reflections of this year's outcome and what it might mean for the future.To celebrate Olof and Jessica, some "bubbly" champagne-like drink will be served, and Machteld has promised to bring some "fika".

I would also like to point out an interesting blog post about how to be succesful in writing research grant on the blog "The Professor is in". I got the hint about this blog from Brazilian graduate student Marcos Robalinho Lima. The particular post is entitled "Dr. Karen's Foolproof Grant Template" and you can find it here.

Time and place: Wednesday November 16 at 13.00 at in "Argumentet".


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dr. Jessica Abbott receives "Junior Project Grant" from the Swedish Research Council (VR) and moves to Lund

Some of the greatest moments of satisfaction in the life and career of scientists and teachers is when former PhD-students are succesful and able to obtain jobs and positions, especially these days with increasingly severe competition for research grants. It is therefore with great pleasure that I now note that Jessica Abbott, currently postdoc at the Evolutionary Biology Centre (EBC) in Uppsala, has received a so-called "Junior Project Grant" from the Swedish Research Council (VR).

As many regular readers of this blog probably already know, Jessica defended her PhD-thesis here in Lund in November 2006, with me as her main advisor. After her PhD-defence, she moved to Queens University (Canada) for a VR-funded postdoc in the laboratory of Adam Chippindale to work on intralocus sexual conflict over wing shape in fruitflies (Drosophila melanogaster). She continued working with fruitflies also during her second postdoc in Ted Morrow's lab in Uppsala, but now using more transcriptomic techniques, such as microarrays, to study the expression profile consequences of intralocus sexual conflict.

Jessica will join the Evolutionary Ecology Unit in the Biology Department, and start up her own independent research project on intralocus sexual conflict in simultaneous hermaphrodites, using experimental evolution approaches on marine flatworms (see picture above), in collaboration with Lucas Schärer. We will hopefully hear more about these plans in a few weeks, as Jessica will come to this year's Christmas Meeting and party in the Evolutionary Ecology Unit. Jessica has also promised to write a blogpost soon where she will inform us a bit more. She will also come to our weekly lab-meeting on November 16, to share her experience on how to obtain a Junior Project Grant from VR (more info in a forthcoming blogpost).

The fact that Jessica now will bee able to establish herself as an independent senior researcher is not only good for herself, but also for the rest of us, as a new intellectual force with novel research techniques and study organisms  will come to us in Lund. Jessica will thus join our lab soon and will of course be active at lab-meetings and (hopefully) also soon be able to recruit PhD-student(-s) and/or postdocs.

As Jessica now will become another Principal Investigator (PI), I think that time is now very mature to re-name this blog ("Erik Svensson Research Laboratory"), which is to focussed on only one person, to something more general, which captures both mine and Jessica's research, and also opens up for future recruitments and establishments of new PI:s.

Ideally, a new name for this blog should be long-lasting, general, independent of study organisms or techniques, yet still capture the essence of research interests among the PI:s, postdocs and PhD-students. It could very well be a name consisting of several words, even an acronym, as the case of some of our sister blogs at other universities, like the  Eco-Evo, Evo-Eco, which was started by Andrew Hendry at McGill University, but which is a true group blog for his co-workers, just like I want this one to become in the future.

I therefore congratulate Jessica once again, and declare the competition for a new blog name that captures current and future research interests of this group open! There is no deadline to come in with suggestions, and you could either tell me directly, or write in the comments below this blog posts. I have already one possible name in mind, which I have discussed with Jessica, but wanted everyone to have the chance to come in with suggestions before I decide. There is no jury, and I am the only judge. Good arguments will be considered, especially if they take in to account the factors that I listed above (generality, likely duration and the possibility of future recruits and new PI:s).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Impact of Inversion Polymorphisms on Evolution

Chromosomal inversions are widespread in nature and have been found in plants, mammals, birds and insects. A role of selection on the evolution of chromosomal inversions has been demonstrated through the pioneering work by Dobzhansky and co-workers on Drosophila pseudoobscura, but has since been found in several other species. Inversions are of particular interest in many species because they suppress recombination in heterokaryotypes and may therefore help to maintain positive epistatic interactions among groups of alleles at loci contained in the inversion. In this way, inversion can be seen as facilitating the formation of adaptive gene complexes, drivers of adaptation and speciation.
Traditionally, inversions on the species level have been identified cytologically through meiotic observations. Inversion polymorphisms within species can be identified through examination of the salivary glands of adults, where polytene chromosomes are located. 

Figure 1: A giant polytene chromosome in Drosophila

In these glands, inversion polymorphisms can be recognized by loops in polytene chromosomes, that reflect a chromosome pair consisting of a large inverted and a non-inverted chromosome. More recently, molecular techniques can be employed to score known inversion points, either through specific markers that span the breakpoint region or SNP’s in disequilibrium with the inversions. 

AN EXAMPLE: the white throated sparrow
A fascinating example of such an inversion polymorphism can be found in a North American songbird, the white throated sparrow. In this bird, a chromosomal inversion leads to two distinct color polymorphisms; some individuals have black and white head stripes and others have brown and tan head stripes. 

Figure 2: The white throated sparrow color morphs: black and white and brown and tan

This color variation corresponds perfectly to one of two alternative life history strategies. The black and white males sing often and are more aggressive than the plain males and are overall neither devoted mates nor caring fathers. Females are affected in a very similar way, with black and white striped females being more aggressive and polyandrous and less caring as mothers. Chromosomal staining methods revealed that white throated sparrows have a very large mirror-image end-to-end chromosomal rearrangement: roughly 1000 genes on chromosome number 2 have flipped around. In black and white birds, one copy of chromosome 2 is partly inverted, while both copies in brown and tan birds are uninverted. 

Figure 3: Example of paracentric and pericentric chromosomal inversions

The polymorphism is maintained by almost perfect negative assortative mating – each morph mates with its opposite. Dimorphic pairs have an advantageous balance between parental care and aggressive territorial defense. In fact, 95% of pairs are mixed-morphs. Negative assortment assures similar reproductive success, and populations consist of approximately half heterozygotes, which are black and white, and half homozygous recessives. This  structure is the predicted equilibrium if one homozygote is more fit than another. The double inversion ‘‘white–white’’ is nearly lethal. 
To read more about this go here

NEXT WEEK'S lab meeting: November 9th, 2011, 13:00

In next week’s lab meeting we will discuss two papers. The first is a review paper by Hoffmann and Rieseberg (2008) entitled ‘Revisiting the Impact of Inversions in Evolution: From Population Genetic Markers to Drivers of Adaptive Shifts and Speciation?’ The second paper is a by Gilburn and Day (1994) on seaweed flies, which I will be working on in New Zealand with Gregory Holwell from the University of Auckland. The seaweed fly article will use a population study to investigate the effect of stable and unstable environmental conditions on the Fisherian process and viability indicator mechanisms. The paper is entitled ‘Evolution of Female Choice in Seaweed Flies: Fisherian and Good Genes Mechanisms Operate in Different Populations‘ 

Any Fika volunteers?