What do we know about the genetics of “born this way?” — and how does it help us to know it?

(Flickr, karendasuyo)

Not quite five years ago, a collaboration led by researchers at the Broad Institute published what seemed like the last word in “born this way”: a genomic study of same-sex sexual behavior in a cohort of almost half a million people. That project promised to provide, finally, a window into the evolution of human sexual diversity. It demonstrated, about as clearly as we can demonstrate for any behavioral trait, that some element of sexual orientation is inborn — and that the genetic variation underlying human sexual diversity is deeply woven into the history of our species.

Five years later, in the U.S., we’re facing an ongoing wave of state legislation against basic aspects of queer life and culture, from bans on gender-affirming medical care to restrictions targeting drag performances and history lessons. Worldwide, we’ve seen renewed action against sexual and gender minorities, up to and including the imposition of the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” We’ve long thought legal protections for sexual and gender diversity flowed logically from the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are deeply inborn and immutable, in the way that most people understand genetics — so why didn’t a modern genome-wide association study in the pages of Science move the needle?

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Mini Reviews provide a new format for brief overviews of trending topics

Sometimes you want to introduce an idea or review a topic that doesn’t support an in-depth review of the literature. Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources are introducing a new article format that may be what you’re looking for: Mini Reviews. In a joint editorial published online this week, editors Joanna Freeland, Ben Sibbett, and Loren Rieseberg outline plans for the new format, which will be limited to 3,000 words and two display items. They also suggest some examples of Mini Review topics that might be appropriate for each of the sister journals:

  • A new topic or research area for which there is not yet sufficient data for a full review (MEC).
  • A focused overview of a niche topic (MEC).
  • Best practices for a particular technique or analysis (MER).
  • Emerging techniques that have been adopted relatively recently (MER).
  • Older techniques with novel applications (MER).
  • A novel insight or perspective on a topic that has previously been reviewed (MEC).
  • A connection between two or more topics that have previously been addressed in isolation (MEC).
  • The development of a novel hypothesis that could frame future research (MEC).

The journals will accept unsolicited Mini Review submissions through the usual process — just select the Mini Review format when you’re setting it up in Manuscript Central — but the editors encourage pre-submission inquiries, which can be sent to molecol@wiley.com.

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2024 Harry Smith Prize awarded to Robert Masaki Hechler, for demonstrating the potential of environmental transcriptomics

Daphnia pulex (WikiMedia Commons, Paul Hebert)

This year’s Harry Smith Prize, which recognizes the best paper published in the field of molecular ecology by an early career scholar, has been awarded to Robert Masaki Hechler, now a PhD student working with Martin Krkosek at the Univeristy of Toronto.

With collaborators at McGill University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Hechler demonstrated the use of environmental RNA as an indicator of physiological responses to temperature stress in experimental microcosm communities, with Daphnia pulex as a focal species. The work appears in the paper “Environmental transcriptomics under heat stress: Can environmental RNA reveal changes in gene expression of aquatic organisms?”, which was published on the Molecular Ecology website last October.

In selecting Hechler’s study for the 20204 prize, the award committee of Jana Wold, Angel Rivera-Colon, and Arne Jacobs wrote

An accumulating body of studies had been published describing the use of environmental DNA to investigate species composition and distribution. However, the use of eRNA has been far less studied. Robert investigated gene expression changes in Daphnia exposed to heat-stress and control conditions in a common garden set up to show that eRNA collected from tanks shows similar patterns of gene expression changes compared to RNA extracted from Daphnia tissue. Therefore, this is the first paper, to our knowledge, to show that eRNA can be used to detect the molecular responses of macroorganisms to environmental stress, opening up a wide potential for further studies.

The winning article is available Open Access at the Molecular Ecology website.

The award committee also recognized an “outstanding paper” as runner-up: Aurora García-Berro’s demonstration that migratory butterfly species maintain greater genome-wide genetic diversity.

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2024 Molecular Ecology Prize goes to Michael Whitlock, for foundational contributions to the study of population genetics in space

The Molecular Ecology Prize Committee has announced the 2024 recipient of the award, which recognizes an outstanding scientist who has made significant contributions to the still-young field of molecular ecology:

The 2024 Molecular Ecology Prize has been awarded to Professor Michael Whitlock, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Professor Whitlock is a world authority on the role of spatial population structure in evolutionary biology and population genetics.  He derived basic population genetic results for spatially structured populations, including the effective population size, rate of evolution due to selection, probability of fixation of beneficial and deleterious alleles, mutation load, and inbreeding depression. These results added a ubiquitous, but mainly ignored aspect of real biology to population genetics, i.e., spatial population structure.  He also established the pervasive influence of non-equilibrium processes in genetic spatial structure, demonstrated important limitations of widely used models for statistical genetics inference, derived the first proper statistical treatment of QST, and identified many sources of potential bias in genomic methods for detecting loci underlying local adaptation. This work has had lasting impacts on numerous topics of interest to molecular ecologists, ranging from landscape genomics to conservation genetics to speciation. Whitlock has further to contributed to the field through exceptional service, include writing a leading text on statistical methods, serving as President of the American Society of Naturalists, and establishing a data archiving policy at the major publications in his field, including Molecular Ecology.

Dr. Whitlock joins the previous winners of the Molecular Ecology Prize: Godfrey Hewitt, John Avise, Pierre Taberlet, Harry Smith, Terry Burke, Josephine Pemberton, Deborah Charlesworth, Craig Moritz, Laurent Excoffier, Johanna Schmitt, Fred Allendorf, Louis Bernatchez, Nancy Moran, Robin Waples, Scott Edwards, Victoria Sork, Fuwen Wei, Kerstin Johannessen, and Uma Ramakrishnan.

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Molecular Ecology call for papers: Genomics of Speciation

Helianthus anomalus, the western sunflower, which likely formed by homoploid hybrid speciation. (Loren Rieseberg)

Molecular Ecology invites papers to be considered for inclusion in a planned Special Issue on the genomics of speciation. The special issue editors are interested in new empirical studies, theory results, and analytic advances, as well as syntheses, reviews, and opinions. Candidate papers should be submitted via Manuscript Central in the usual way, with the Genomics of Speciation special issue indicated in the “Special Issue” section of the manuscript information page. Submissions are due at the end of December, 2024, and the finished special issue is planned for publication in November 2025.

For full details, read the complete solicitation below:

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Molecular natural history: Lupines

Lupines on the Icicle Ridge trail above Leavenworth, Washington. (Flickr, jby)

Molecular Natural History is a series of posts highlighting what genetic data has revealed about some of my favorite organisms. There’s no rhyme or reason to what species I’ll feature for this, beyond the fact that they’ve made me stop and look closer when I see them along a trail or in my neighborhood. If you’d like to write about the molecular natural history of a favorite taxon, why not pitch a guest post?

Choosing a favorite wildflower is a challenge for anyone with a little depth of botanical experience, but if I had to pick one I appreciate purely for its decorative presence on the landscape, it would probably be a lupine.

Genus Lupinus includes hundreds of species across the globe, with centers of diversity in the mountain ranges that run down the western spines of North and South America. In spring and summer, you don’t need to hike far into the Rockies or the Cascades or the Sierras before you’ll find their racemes of blue-and-white or yellow or pink flowers marking the edge of the trail. In much of Western North America, you can see multiple species in a few miles of hiking.

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Molecular natural history: The Channel Island foxes

A Santa Cruz Island fox, Urocyon littoralis santacruzae, on the prowl. (Flickr, jby)

Molecular Natural History is a series of posts highlighting what population genetic data has revealed about some of my favorite organisms. There’s no rhyme or reason to what species I’ll feature for this, beyond the fact that they’ve made me stop and look closer when I see them along a trail or in my neighborhood, and I need to find at least a little interesting research addressing their molecular ecology.

California’s Channel Islands, an archipelago tucked into the bight formed by concave coastline between Conception and San Diego, are home to a long list of endemic flora and fauna. Of these, the Channel Island foxes, Urocyon littoralis, are arguably the most charismatic — and unquestionably the cutest. They are sister species of the gray fox, and have very similar coloration, but they’re as little as half the size, or a third of the mass, of their mainland congener. It’s not unusual for animals to evolve dramatically smaller (or greater) body size on isolated islands, and the Channel Island foxes provide a case study of the phenomenon within an hour’s boat-ride from Los Angeles.

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Nominations open for the 2024 Harry Smith Prize, recognizing early career research published in Molecular Ecology

The editorial board of the journal Molecular Ecology is seeking nominations for the Harry Smith Prize, which recognizes the best paper published in Molecular Ecology or Molecular Ecology Resources in the previous calendar year (2023) by graduate students or early career scholars with no more than five years of postdoctoral or fellowship experience. The prize comes with a cash award of US$1000 and an announcement in the journal and in The Molecular Ecologist.  The winner will also be asked to join a junior editorial board for the journal to offer advice on changing research needs and potentially serve as a guest editor. The winner of this annual prize is selected by the junior editorial board.

The prize is named after Professor Harry Smith FRS, who founded Molecular Ecology and served as both Chief and Managing Editor during the journal’s critical early years. He continued as the journal’s Managing Editor until 2008, and he went out of his way to encourage early career scholars. In addition to his editorial work, Harry was one of the world’s foremost researchers in photomorphogenesis, where he determined how plants respond to shading, leading to concepts such as “neighbour detection” and “shade avoidance,” which are fundamental to understanding plant responses to crowding and competition. More broadly his research provided an early example of how molecular data could inform ecology, and in 2008 he was awarded the Molecular Ecology Prize that recognized both his scientific and editorial contributions to the field.

Please send a PDF of the paper you are nominating, with a short supporting statement (no more than 250 words; longer submissions will not be accepted) directly to molecol.social@gmail.com by Friday 26 April 2024. Self-nominations are encouraged.

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Nominations open for the 2024 Molecular Ecology Prize

From the Molecular Ecology Prize Committee:

We are soliciting nominations for the annual Molecular Ecology Prize.

The field of molecular ecology is young and inherently interdisciplinary. As a consequence, research in molecular ecology is not currently represented by a single scientific society, so there is no body that actively promotes the discipline or recognizes its pioneers. The editorial board of the journal Molecular Ecology therefore created the Molecular Ecology Prize in order to fill this void, and recognize significant contributions to this area of research. The prize selection committee is independent of the journal and its editorial board.

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Don’t ask “When is it coevolution?” — ask “How is it coevolution?”

A rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa, somewhere on the Marin headlands of California. Rough-skinned newts’ geographically varying arms race with predatory garter snakes has made them a classic case study for “geographic mosaic” coevolution. (Flickr, matt “smooth tooth” knoth)

Ask me to pick a single word that describes what I study, and I’ll typically say “coevolution.” This is probably true of most evolutionary biologists who study interactions between species — plants and pollinators, hosts and symbionts, predators and prey, et cetera and so on. I can also rattle off a definition drilled into my memory by repeated exposure in graduate school, and then just repetition over a half-dozen semesters teaching evolutionary biology: Coevolution is reciprocal adaptation of interacting species. We usually understand that to mean coevolution is specific, that the interacting species are interacting one-on-one; and that the adaptation is more or less simultaneous, that one species adapts to adaptive changes in the other as those changes occur, and vice-versa. So really, coevolution is specific, simultaneous, reciprocal adaptation of interacting species.

Like a chromosome unspooling into megabases of DNA sequence, that definition unpacks into a huge research effort. Evaluating whether or not adaptation has occurred (or is occurring) requires identifying genes or genetically determined traits involved in a species interaction, then testing for evidence of natural selection on those genes or traits — either relationships between trait values and growth, survival, or reproductive success, or else population genetic patterns consistent with a history of selection. That’s a lot of work when you’re studying the adaptation of one species. Make it two, and you’re beyond what may be possible in a single doctoral dissertation, or even a collaborative grant proposal.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder: what if we don’t actually need to do all that work?

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