Ecology and Evolution Research Group
Our research in Ecology and Evolution aims to expand our knowledge of the diverse organisms that exist across the tree of life.
Our research deals with quantifying the diversity of the living world, from molecules to ecosystems. We search for new biotechnological potential in the genome of lesser-studied organisms. Through our explorations of the diversity of organism function and ecology, we create a basis for assessing the phase of rapid extinction which human beings are causing and struggling to prevent.
Our group addresses a range of ecological questions and issues such as pollutants within the environment, climate change, pollination dynamics, evolution of group living, molecular ecology, microbial dynamics and bioprospecting. We aim to inspire the public and demonstrate the value of scientific curiosity, by providing examples of the diversity of life and the unexpected capabilities of organisms.
We also have direct links with other leading centres at the University, including the Centre for Blue Governance, the Centre for Enzyme Innovation, the Institute of Marine Sciences, and the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
Our research is regularly featured in publications such as Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Nature Communications and Current Opinion in Chemical Biology – and recent funders of our work include Innovate UK, NERC, BBSRC, NC3Rs, Environment Agency, DEFRA, The Royal Society, the Crown Estate, the European Union (EU), the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Historic England.
Our research topics include:
Research in this topic focuses primarily on the evolutionary ecology of plants and the evolution of group living.
a) Evolutionary ecology of plants
We work on the evolution and ecology of plant-animal relationships, especially pollination. Tools used include quantitative genetics, molecular phylogenetics, and functional morphometrics. This research addresses broader questions about the origins, maintenance, and future of terrestrial biodiversity. These relationships are being modelled onto geographic scales through field studies, with a view to putting these species-species interactions into the context of multispecies interactions and community ecology. We also investigate sex polymorphisms in plants in relation to pollinators and their ability to promote pollen flow between different floral forms.
b) Evolution of group living
Our research seeks to understand how animals have evolved to reap the benefits of living, feeding, and breeding in groups while minimising the inevitable costs of competing with group members for limited resources. Our main model organisms are spiders, but other organisms such as wasps and ants are also being studied. Group living is only found in a small number of spider species. Some spider species are cooperative breeders, comparable to social groups of lions or primates. Other spider species are colonial, meaning that they live in groups but maintain solitary territories within the group. Spider groups can be formed by hundreds or thousands of individuals, and are mainly found in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Within these magnificent groups, spiders show some fascinating behaviours such as hunting together, sharing food, building their silken nest together, and helping to protect and feed each other’s young.
Palaeoecology can help us to understand ecosystem change over time by using sedimentary records to characterize the past diversity of species, and track how communities respond to factors such as climate and environmental disturbance. By understanding these dynamics in the past, we can better predict how ecosystems might respond to future climate change or management regimes and thereby inform policy and land use discussions. Our work focuses on using modern pollen samples from surface sediment and traps to build understanding of how vegetation produces pollen today. We quantify the relationship between actual vegetation abundance and the composition of pollen samples in modern times to calibrate sedimentary archives and obtain an accurate estimate of community compositions through time. We also use sophisticated, non-destructive 3D imaging methods to determine the developmental age of fossils, limiting errors in assigning fossils to species, and improving our estimate of past diversity.
Research in this topic focuses primarily on the population genomics of adaptation, phylogenomics, and the evolution of genome organisation.
Our research examines how selection, history and intrinsic properties of genomes act on genetic diversity and speciation in natural populations. We combine genetics and genomics with the study of environmental variation and ecology.
a) Population genomics of adaptation
Our research examines the genetic diversity of domesticated species and their wild relatives (such as flax and date palm) to identify locally adapted genes and understand the molecular mechanisms through which species adapt. We also use the tools provided by population genomics to investigate the extant genetic diversity and resilience of endangered species (such as the Greek tortoise in Spain and the Reunion harrier). Our research also focuses on enzymes of value for biofuel generation. We are developing transcriptomic and genomic resources for wood-consuming marine organisms to determine which proteins are produced during the digestive process. This work will pave the way for the discovery of new enzymes for biodegradation. The first output of the Gribble Genome Project is the mitochondrial genome. We use transcriptomic approaches to characterise the effects of parasites on gene expression in crustaceans and to detect markers for gender expression in animals subject to pollution
The reconstruction of genealogical relationships between taxa or individuals through the comparison of DNA sequences is a powerful tool to understand the evolution of species and communities through time. We examine the evolutionary processes producing diversity using phylogenetic methods at short and long timescales. Our work has particularly focused on the diversification of plants taxa, and the development of efficient methods to sequence low-copy nuclear genes across diverse taxa (e.g. Angio353). Our group also contributed to the phylogenetic study of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in Portsmouth and the UK through its contribution to the COVID-19 Consortium.
c) Evolution of genome organisation
We examine the evolution of genome content and organisation across the tree of life. We use population genetics and comparative phylogenomic approaches to determine how genomes acquire and lose genetic material. We work on a diversity of species, including green anole, house mouse, and giant monocotyledone genomes. In particular, we investigate how polyploidization impacts gene functions and shapes phenotypic diversity. We also investigate the population dynamics of transposable elements (TEs), which are genomic sequences able to move through genomes, causing sometimes dramatic phenotypic changes. We study how selection, demography and speciation shape TE diversity, using the toolbox of population genomics.
Research in this topic focuses primarily on antimicrobial resistance in the environment and bioremediation; environmental monitoring, and microbial ecology.
a) Antimicrobial resistance in the environment and bioremediation
As shown by the COVID-19 pandemic, microbiology has a huge impact on our everyday lives and health. Understanding how microbes interact and persist in the environment is essential — with far reaching implications from biogeochemistry, global ecosystem functions and human health. We apply molecular tools to better understand microbial diversity and interactions in the environment. These analyses fall into two main areas: the degradation of recalcitrant natural products, persistent organic pollutants and solid polymer substrates for industrial applications; and antimicrobial resistance in aquatic environments, especially its transfer and concentration in environments affected by wastewater releases and in aquaculture systems.
b) Environmental monitoring
Our ecotoxicology and environmental monitoring research examines how humans impact upon aquatic (marine and freshwater) and terrestrial ecosystems. We also explore the ecological consequences of human activity and seek to develop new methods to assess human impact on the environment. With climate change and pollution becoming more pressing concerns, our research is helping inform better policy decisions and exploring how we can protect our environment in a sustainable way.
Our research outputs are regularly published by leading industry publications, including Global Climate Change, Aquatic Toxicology, Environmental Pollution and Science of the Total Environment. We have exceptional facilities that play an important role in our work, including the seawater flow-through aquarium facilities at the Institute of Marine Sciences, our research platform in Langstone Harbour, the Petersfield Waste Water Treatment facility, and our research vessels, greenhouses, microscopy suites, and molecular and bioinformatic facilities.
We monitor the effects of climate change by monitoring ocean acidification levels, and we study the impacts caused by pollutants such as metals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, oil, noise and radiation. We use field-based and laboratory-based analyses, and our methods encompass everything from the latest in molecular and cellular biology, through to community ecology.
c) Microbial ecology of pristine and polluted environments
Our research aims to understand the functions and ecology of microbes and whole microbial communities in environments including marine systems/sediments, and wastewater treatment plants. While microorganisms are critical for the transformation of organic matter and cycling of elements in the environment, having major roles in global biogeochemical cycles, many microorganisms are completely undescribed, and their functions unknown. We therefore aim to uncover their roles in key environmental processes, and also understand how they work together to do so. More specifically, we are especially interested in understanding how and which microbes degrade and consume different organic molecules, especially large macromolecules (such as proteins and DNA), and how this controls biogeochemical processes, microbial food-webs, and niche partitioning.
Further topics include the study of newly described sulfur-cycling bacteria in marine systems, as well as genomics and proteomics of bacteria that transform halogenated-organic pollutants. Because most microorganisms are uncultivated, we apply and develop molecular approaches that allow us to study microorganisms in their natural habitats — these approaches include DNA stable-isotope probing to track isotopically-labelled atoms/organics into specific microorganisms; fluorescent in situ hybridisation for the detection and visualisation of microorganisms in the environment; metagenomic/genomic analyses for understanding the functional potential of uncultivated microorganisms.
Recent research outputs
Wasmund, Kenneth, Pelikan, Claus, Schintlmeister, Arno et al. In: Nature Microbiology. 2021, Vol. 6, No. 7. pp. 885-898.
Pérez-Escobar, Oscar A., Bellot, Sidonie, Przelomska, Natalia A. S. et al. In: Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2021, Vol. 38, No. 10. pp. 4475-4492.
Bourgeois, Yann, Fields, Peter, Bento, Gilberto et al. In: Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2021.
Newsome, Laura, Falagán, Carmen. In: GeoHealth. 2021, Vol. 5, No. 10.
Grinsted, Lena, Schou, Mads F., Settepani, Virginia et al. In: Development Genes and Evolution. 2020, Vol. 230, No. 2. pp. 173-184.
McDonald, Ryan C., Watts, Joy E. M., Schreier, Harold J. In: Frontiers in Microbiology. 2019, Vol. 10. pp. 0.
Manzano, Saúl, Julier, Adele C.M., Dirk, Cherie J. et al. In: Restoration Ecology. 2020, Vol. 28, No. 6. pp. 1335-1342.
Our facilities allow us to conduct research ranging from molecular to genetics, to ecology and marine sciences. We have access to Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR); analytical ultracentrifugation (AUC) facilities, and next generation DNA sequencing facilities are provided by the Oxford Nanopore GridION platform.
You can read more detailed information about our facilities by following one of the links below.