The key to a productive ecosystem may be plant neighbors’ chemistry

A milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), one of the plant species in the experiment. Butterfly weed is part of a plant family that produce cardiac glycosides as a toxic defense, but some insect herbivores have adapted to overcome that defense. (Flickr: Martin LaBar)

One of the grand patterns across the diversity of flowering plants is that major groups of species are deeply united by shared chemistry, especially “secondary” biochemical products that don’t directly contribute to processes like photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction. Secondary compounds often have defensive function, and they’ve long been recognized as the key to the evolutionary history of plant-herbivore interactions. According to a nifty new study, biochemistry’s deep linkage to plants’ evolution may also make it the most useful index of a plant community’s functional diversity.

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Evolution 2023: Highlights of evolution and ecological genetics at Albuquerque

Fendler’s globemallow (Sphaeralcea fendlerii) along the riverfront bike trail. (jby)

Evolution is back, folks. That is, the 2023 joint annual meeting of the American Society of NaturalistsSociety of Systematic Biologists, and Society for the Study of Evolution, held last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, felt just about like its pre-pandemic self. The meeting was cancelled in 2020, then ran a fully virtual program in 2021, and went hybrid in 2022, running two days of virtual talks and a comparatively in-person event in Cleveland, Ohio. But Evolution 2023 felt like an expansion of its old form, filling five days of contributed talks and plenaries at the Albuquerque convention center, as well as a two-day virtual conference that included the SSE and SSB student award symposia and online versions of many of the meeting’s networking events.

Someday it would be nice to write a conference recap without also writing an introductory paragraph about COVID-19, but we’re not there yet. Masking was pretty sparse in the convention center, and organizers alerted us to some positive tests among attendees towards the end of the in-person meeting … and two days after I got home (by way of an unmasked layover in Phoenix) I woke up congested and achey and pegged the meter on an antibody test. I’m on the mend thanks to Paxlovid, which works as advertised — but my experience is as good a caution as any, as you depart for summer conferences and travel.

It also delayed my write up of the conference, but this has been my first post-recovery priority, because I saw a lot of good molecular ecology work, and some exciting methods and utilities, on display at Albuquerque. Without further ado, some highlights from my notes:

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The Molecular Ecologist is a Bookshop.org affiliate

The Molecular Ecologist is a scholarly blog, and we’ve had books and book reviews as one of our focuses for as long as I’ve been managing things here. For almost as long, we’ve been set up as an Amazon affiliate, to receive commissions from purchases that our readers make as a result of those reviews — but Amazon is (and has been for some time) not a book-lover’s choice for book purchasing. Amazon’s business model undermines local independent bookstores, and the company squeezes authors and publishers with its market power, endangering the people who write, edit, and produce new books.

That’s why I’m very happy to announce that TME has finally officially established “affiliate” status with Bookshop.org, the online bookstore that supports local brick-and-mortar independent bookstores. Bookshop works with independent stores to fulfill purchases, and returns the profits from those purchases to the stores. Our application was accepted yesterday, and I’ve spent this morning poring through our archive to update links — now, when you click a link to a book title on this site, you’ll often be taken directly to the book’s page on Bookshop, and a portion of your purchase will go to support this blog, as well as independent booksellers who work with the site. I’ve also cleaned up and refreshed formatting on some of those old review posts, and added a standardized disclaimer to clearly specify that we receive a commission from purchases made via affiliate links in a given post. (This is a practice we instituted a while ago for the old Amazon links, but it hadn’t been applied consistently.)

We’ve got an affiliate page on Bookshop, where we can offer curated lists of titles. Right now, that’s simply a list of books we’ve reviewed, but it may be there’s some other forms of curation we can do in that venue. Check it out, and happy reading!

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Write for The Molecular Ecologist

Bluebook pages with notes by entomologist H.G. Dyar (Flickr, Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Have you ever considered science blogging? This might sound like a question from 2011 — have you ever considered taking a smartphone into the field, or posting your conference talk on YouTube, or wearing a fedora in a non-cosplay setting — but I’m really quite serious.

The current reality is that, after years spent using a handful of centralized platforms, social media is splintering and getting noisier. If you want to build a public online profile for your scientific work, you really need more than a Twitter profile and a validated entry on Google Scholar. Blogging can build an in-depth profile of more than just dashed-off thoughts, on an independent website that’s fully connected and searchable on the open Internet.

Blogging can also be a form of scholarly writing that sits between the short informal thoughts you might exchange on Twitter or Mastodon and the deep work you put into a peer-reviewed article — a space to flesh out your notes about an exciting paper you just read, to sketch some connections you see between a handful of different concepts, to work out a new idea while it’s still forming, or to outline the steps of a method or procedure for future reference. Maybe other folks will benefit from even that preliminary work, and maybe their response will help you polish it for publication in a more formal venue; but the blogging itself is useful practice even if it doesn’t go viral or yield a new publication.

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2023 Harry Smith Prize awarded to Antonino Malacrinò, for harnessing open data to study how microbiome communities settle on their hosts

Termites, like Reticulitermes flavipes, are famously dependent on specific gut microbiota; many other insects are less reliant on microbial symbionts (Flickr: Dann Thombs)

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 Antonino Malacrinò, now an Assistant Professor at the University of Reggio Calabria, Italy. Malacrinò contributed the invited synthesis “Host species identity shapes the diversity and structure of insect microbiota,” published in the February 2022 issue of Molecular Ecology. Malacrinò assembled publicly available sequence data from more than 4,000 samples of insect-associated microbes to test whether insects’ microbial symbionts are shaped by shared evolutionary history — or assembled on a much faster, species-specific time scale.

The award committee, Kaichi Huang and Arne Jacobs, note in their decision letter that the work both demonstrates the value of open data, and identifies continuing issues in its accessibility for new, synthetic analyses:

Antonino’s article suggests that host species identity has a wider impact on the structure and diversity of microbial communities than the other factors such as diet, sex, life stage, sample origin and treatment. Notably, Antonino found that a wide portion of published studies actually does not include essential information to compare their data within a wider meta-analysis, or to even replicate their work, thus highlighting the importance of the commitment to open data policies. As a consequence, this paper not only provides novel scientific findings in insect microbiota, but also shows that open data is an extremely powerful tool that enables new discoveries.

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

The award committee also recognized an “outstanding paper” as runner-up: Alexander J. Blumenfeld’s study of social adaptation to urbanized environments by the widespread ant Tapinoma sessile.

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Summer session resolutions

I said I’d use the treadmill more often, I didn’t say how. (Flickr: normanack)

Like all good academics, I bristle at the not-infrequent suggestion, from innocent but insufficiently browbeaten friends and family, that I “take summer off”. In point of fact I am simply not paid for the months between the spring and fall semesters when I’m not teaching, which is the case for many university faculty in the U.S. But then also, free from the constraints of teaching, the summer months are the one long window each year when I can concentrate on everything else I need to do to advance an academic research career: writing up and publishing results, applying for new grant funding, advancing projects to the point that other members of the lab can pick them up when the fall semester starts and I disappear under a new wave of student emails and grading.

Forget New Year’s resolutions. For those of us on the academic schedule, the time to make ambitious and possibly Quixotic plans is now, when the summer months stretch ahead in their full, pure possibility. Of course the list of summer plans has to shrink once it’s subject to actual time constraints. But it’s nice to inventory what could be done, to name the possibilities and maybe learn from the ones that never materialize.

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2023 Molecular Ecology Prize goes to Uma Ramakrishnan, for bringing molecular genetics to conservation practice, policy, and the public

A Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris, in southwestern India. (Flickr: gskep-photo)

The Molecular Ecology Prize Committee has announced the 2023 recipient of the award, which recognizes an outstanding scientist who has made significant contributions to the still-young field of molecular ecology:

This year’s Molecular Ecology Prize is awarded to Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan, a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.   Dr. Ramakrishnan is best known for her studies on the tiger and other large mammals, which are the “poster children” for India’s natural resources. Her studies have included census estimates from combined camera trap and genetic surveys, historical inferences from genetic data and museum specimens, and demonstrations of gene flow impacting genomic variation and inbreeding depression.   Dr. Ramakrishnan’s research has led to valuable conservation applications, for example by providing evidence used in a Supreme Court ruling that wildlife corridors must be included in certain highway expansions.  Dr. Ramakrishnan’s work on science communication and community service is exemplary, and she is an important role model to scientists around the world.

Dr. Ramakrishnan 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, and Kerstin Johannessen.

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The Molecular Ecologist is now federated

A flag for the United Federation of Planets, because of course.

Twitter, once the center of a certain kind of public-facing science community, is looking less and less like it will continue to be a viable platform for reaching the rest of the world. I’ve kept the Molecular Ecologist account in place even as I’ve abandoned the bird site myself, but it’s just auto-tweeting posts into an increasingly unstable network whose owner has no interest in identifying trustworthy sources, much less moderating out overt propaganda, misinformation of all sorts, or even hate speech. It’s really past time to figure out a post-Twitter social solution for The Molecular Ecologist.

In the wake of Twitter’s change in ownership last year, I’ve set up shop on the community-supported ecoevo.social, which is part of the “Fediverse”, a decentralized network of sites that are “federated” to exchange posts and interact with each other much like you would within Twitter, using a protocol called ActivityPub. I think of this as a social network that runs more like WordPress, the software that undergirds this very blog, than Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or other centralized social sites. Just as I rent space on a hosting site’s servers to maintain an installation of WordPress that provides all the functions of The Molecular Ecologist, ecoevo.social is an “instance” of the ActivityPub-compatible interface called Mastodon running on a bit of rented server capacity.

So I’ve finally set up TME with an account on genomic.social, the instance that seems like the best fit for our particular use-case (genetics-oriented, representing a blog affiliated with journals managed by a for-profit publisher). You can now follow @molecologist@genomic.social to get updates as they’re posted to the blog — and you should find this post as the very first update on that account.

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Nominations open for the 2023 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 in the previous year 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 Dr. Kaichi Huang (kaichi.huang@botany.ubc.ca) and Dr. Arne Jacobs (arne.jacobs@glasgow.ac.uk) by Friday 31 March 2023. Self-nominations are encouraged.

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Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources are seeking new Associate Editors

Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources are looking for new Editorial Board members to join the journals as Associate Editors in the key subject areas below:

  • Computer programs, NGS pipelines, bioinformatics
  • Microbial ecology – primarily prokaryotes, microbial communities, metagenomics
  • Species interactions, food webs, trophic ecology
  • Mammal molecular ecology
  • Transcriptomics and gene expression studies

Nominations and personal applications are welcome, and while scientific qualifications are paramount, the Editorial Board would particularly appreciate nominations and applications from suitably qualified researchers in underrepresented groups, including women, ethnic minority scientists, and scientists with disabilities, among others. Please email nominations/applications by March 20th, 2023 to jburton@wiley.com with the following items:

  • Cover letter stating the reasons for your nomination, of if applying for yourself, your interest in the role and familiarity with the journals,
  • Abbreviated CV (Education, Publications, Outreach) if you have it.
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