Insect social parasites:
behavioural genomics models for understanding the basis of phenotypic evolution
Understanding how diversity of life, from form to behavior, arises at the level of the genes is one of the biggest challenges in modern biology. A single genome can produce phenotypes so contrasting that they can be mistaken as different species; for example a worker ant can be 20 times smaller than its mother queen, and exhibits specialized morphologies to help it defend its colony. Equally, the same genome enables an individual to be resilient to changes in its environment, expressing different behaviours and/or morphologies in response to dynamic demands of its environment or life-history. This is an exciting time for biologists, as advances in genomic methodologies now allow us to dissect the molecular basis of such phenotypic diversity and plasticity across a range of organisms, from genes to phenotypes.
However, natural selection operates directly on phenotypes and only indirectly on the molecular machinery. We lack an integrated study of key phenotypic traits and their dynamic changes in an ecologically relevant setting, with the associated dynamic nature of the underpinning genes.
In this project I will use an inter-disciplinary approach, by uniting classical ethology with new molecular tools of genomics, to understand how genes give rise to phenotypic traits and the dynamic plasticity required to assure fitness for individuals in the natural environment.
I will focus on insect social parasites (species that exploit the resources and parental care of a eusocial insect society) and their social hosts, as they represent an ideal model system for determining the molecular basis of phenotypic evolution, in that they allow comparisons of related species which have evolved mutually exclusive traits and/or life histories.
More info about "Social parasitism and the molecular basis of phenotypic evolution" here!
The three project characters and the host & parasite life cycles (from Cini et al., 2015)