Live from #Evol2017 – Saturday Highlights

A subset of the Molecular Ecologist team is attending this year’s Evolution meeting in Portland, Oregon. As part of our coverage of the meeting, we will recapping the highlights of each day here on the blog, and occasionally previewing upcoming presentations. You can find all of the TME contributors on Twitter using the sidebar on the right or compiled in a handy Twitter list here; follow along with all meeting news using the hashtag #Evol2017.

Mt. Hood and the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, during decidedly cooler weather than conference attendees are currently experiencing. Flickr: Mark

To get things going, these were some of our favorite presentations from Saturday, June 24rd:
Sarah Fumagalli: Hidden Benefits Aid the Evolution of Altruism in Small Populations of Unrelated Individuals
— Builds a model of altruistic behavior with stochastic selection and explicit tracking of trait-environment covariation, and recovers a bunch of classic evolution-of-altruism results from first principles. What’s really cool, though, is that there’s a possibility that increased altruism can evolve by chance in a small population of unrelated individuals, and kickstart selection for more altruism.
Melissa Wilson Sayres: Teaching undergraduate life sciences majors
— Surveyed biology faculty to zero in on what “core competencies” of bioinformatics should be part of a standard life science curriculum. Notably, lots of folks ranked statistics as important, even though you’d think that’s a basic component of every bio program already. And lots of respondents ranked command-line skills as important. A sample of syllabi found a lot of variation in what competencies are actually covered in bioinformatics courses, though.
Jeet Sukumaran: Species Delimitation under the Multispecies Coalescent: Conflating Populations with Species in the Grey Zone
— I think that if you begin a talk by reflecting on a recent paper of yours, you are (brazenly?) making a big assumption that the paper has been read by a majority of your audience. In this case, that assumption was completely justified as a full room of other scientists nodded their heads as we were reminded that multispecies coalescent theory is actually concerned with population structure, not whatever species concept you overlay on top of it. A simple message that resonated, just like the corresponding PNAS paper from late last year.
Greg Haenel: Variation of mitochondrial function in hybrid Tree lizards: assessing the role of differential gene expression
— Cases of mitochondrial introgression across a wide variety of systems continue to pop up in session after session, but nailing down the mechanisms that drive this introgression is a trickier problem. Greg Haenel offered a neat system to investigate further, tree lizards that have hybridized across a stark temperature gradient. The expression analyses show differences associated with those hybrid mitochondria, but the work to tease out how these differences potentially related to interacting mitochondrial and nuclear DNA is just taking off.
Rebekah Rogers: Excess of genomic defects in a woolly mammoth on Wrangel island
— Using the high-quality genomes from Wrangel Island and mainland Siberia published by Eleftheria Palkopoulou et al. in 2015, Rogers explored the genomic defects present in an individual from the last surviving mammoth population. In her standing-room-only talk, Rogers kept one foot firmly rooted in population genetic theory (“to tell you what is possible”) while speculating on the biology of some very mutation-burdened mammoths (shiny pelts!).
Harry Greene: Teaching natural history in the Anthropocene: some rules of engagement
— Given as part of an American Society of Naturalists symposium (“Natural history as the inspiration for scientific inquiry: Stories and tools for teaching”), Greene’s talk focused on on a question I spend a lot of time thinking about: what concepts of “wilderness” mean to a biologist, especially in our current human-dominated epoch. In Greene’s eyes, this has less to do with traditional notions of what qualifies “pristine” or “disturbed” and more with how intact ecological and evolutionary processes are. I like this formulation because it highlights the role of humans as participants (versus spectators) in evolution, but still provides a moral compass for addressing conservation questions.

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