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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Nominations open for the 2023 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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Returning to Asilomar

A white-crowned sparrow on the Asilomar dunes (jby)

Asilomar Conference Grounds is a beautiful, peculiar place. Built in the early decades of the 20th Century as a “leadership camp” for the Young Women’s Christian Association, it’s a collection of warmly beautiful Arts and Crafts buildings nestled among Monterey pines in the dunes between the town of Pacific Grove and the Pacific Ocean. When the YWCA ran into financial trouble in the Great Depression, the State of California bought the property to establish a state park, and today operates it — via an Aramark concession — as a hotel and conference center. For years, now, it’s been the chosen venue for the American Society of Naturalists‘ biennial meeting, three days of research talks and poster sessions and symposia held in an elegant timbered chapel with beams carved with triumphal passages from the Psalms.

ASN’s Asilomar meeting was the last in-person conference I attended before SARS CoV-2 taught us all how to give our talks over video-stream; there was a fully online edition of the meeting in 2021, off the established cycle but making up for the cancelation of the summer Evolution meetings. At that time it was a relief to get back to any sort of interaction with the broader community, and although this wasn’t actually my first in-person conference since 2020 — I’ve now been to a couple of small meetings, and Botany 2022 this past summer — walking the paths of Asilomar and watching talks in the chapel and rolling my eyes at the inadequate supply of coffee in the dining hall’s breakfast service felt like coming home.

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Four science books for 2022

(Flickr, Akshay Hallur)

The Molecular Ecologist receives a small commission for purchases made on Bookshop.org via links from this post.

Books occupy a curious place in my reading life. I read a lot as an academic biologist, from research papers to grant proposals to student assignments, but I struggle to carve out time for longer reading commitments that don’t have a work-related purpose. Most years since before I began a faculty position, I set myself a goal of 20 books read for extracurricular enjoyment, and I have never quite hit that mark. This year isn’t over yet, though! And, in fact, between holiday breaks and long-distance travel, I have managed to cover a pretty good range of fiction and non-fiction in 2022. Here’s four science books I read this year that are, I think, well worth your time — and maybe helpful if you’re still filling in the cracks of a holiday gift-giving list.

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Falling through the gap

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, famously opposed to gaps.

There is a hole. Right at the top of our science. In the introductions to our peer-reviewed papers, where we should explain the need for the new research results we are about to present, there is more and more often … an absence. An emptiness. A lacuna, even. Or, more conventionally: a gap.

I refer to a distressing trend — or at least, a thing I am noticing more and more in the papers I edit and review and read — in how my fellow researchers describe what we do. In introductions and abstracts from the pages of Science and Nature to graduate theses, authors explain that their motivation for doing scientific research is to fill “knowledge gaps.”

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