Title: The evolutionary ecology of toxin synthesis in eukaryotic microalgae
Abstract: Particular groups and species of eukaryotic microalgae frequently become highly abundant and dominant in marine ecosystems, causing problems for the aquaculture and fishing industries, a phenomenon known as a harmful algal bloom. In Australia and internationally, marine harmful algal blooms have caused large-scale losses to shellfish aquaculture and fishing industries, with a bloom in Tasmania in 2012 resulting in ~$23 million in damages, while internationally, a 2016 bloom in Chile caused losses of ~$800 M. The causes of the numerical dominance of harmful marine microalgae do not appear to relate to their growth or nutrient uptake rates, as they are frequently much slower growing and less efficient at nutrient uptake compared to other phytoplankton. The production of an unprecedented array of chemical compounds, some of which have allelopathic, anti-predator, and other toxic impacts, may be the factors enabling their proliferation, known as the ‘watery arms race’. Research into the evolution of dinoflagellates; an increased understanding of their toxicology; and the use of high throughput sequencing and gene expression studies to identify genes involved in toxin production, are now enabling us to piece together the evolution of toxicity in marine microalgae. In this talk, the molecular evolution of polyketide and other secondary metabolite toxins in marine microalgae will be discussed. Gene duplication, gene loss, selection, and lateral transfer all appear to have played a role in the evolution of harmful algal toxins. The application of information on the genetics of harmful algal toxicity to the seafood industry will be outlined.
Title: Decentralized mechanisms of collective behavior in social insects
Abstract: Social insects are paradigms of decentralized organization. Complex colony traits emerge from the interactions of many leaderless workers, each applying appropriate decision rules to limited local information. In this talk, I will describe efforts to understand this process, using two model systems: cooperative transport of large food items by the ant Novomessor cockerelli, and recruitment communication during collective nest site choice by the ant Temnothorax rugatulus. Both systems were targeted with a combination of experimentation and mathematical models. For cooperative transport, we used teams of robots to explore how highly variable ants regulate to a common speed to prevent dissolution of their group. A reinforcement learning algorithm allowed the robots to adaptively adjust individual speed to that of the slowest member, despite each robot having no knowledge of team size and composition. For collective decision-making, we applied information theory to decipher the communication tactics of scout ants that show other ants the routes to promising new homes. This analysis overturned our initial expectation of one-way transfer from informed leader to naïve follower. Instead, we found that followers also signal to their recruiters in order to control the flow of route information, thus enhancing their ability to learn it. These studies show the power of diverse analytical and modeling tools for understanding biological collectives
Title: Breaking Good – making medicines with high school and undergraduate students
Abstract:The Open Source Malaria (OSM) consortium has been pioneering open source drug discovery since 2011. The aim of the project is to find a small molecule that is effective for the treatment of malaria using open science principles.All experiments are published on the Internet in electronic lab notebooks, all data are available for anyone to use and there will be no patents. One of the many advantages of this open approach is that barriers to participation are much lower than for traditional drug discovery projects.The unique features of OSM have enabled us to develop a chemical education and citizen science project, Breaking Good, whereby undergraduates and even high school students can take part in a real research project and synthesise new drug targets.Over the past few years, undergraduates in the USA, NZ, UK and Australia have all worked on the synthesis of novel antimalarials and some of the molecules made show promising activity against Plasmodium falciparum. Additionally, a class at a local high school have contributed to OSM and in 2019, they synthesised the price-hiked toxoplasmosis medicine, Daraprim, in their high school laboratory.In this talk, Dr Alice Motion will describe efforts to increase inquiry-based learning and provision for exciting and informative practical science and progress in the expansion of Breaking Good through platform development, training and crowd-funding to ensure that the project is sustainable.
Title: Honey bee viruses: Cause or consequence of colony collapse?
Abstract: The last century has seen dramatic changes in the management and distribution of honey bees, bringing along a cocktail of novel stressors such as pesticides and diseases. Chief among these is the ectoparasitic mite, Varroa destructor. The emergence and global spread of Varroa has had a major impact on the health of honey bee populations worldwide. One of the most striking observations is the concurrent increase in levels of Deformed wing virus (DWV), a previously innocuous virus of honey bees, now considered to be the ultimate cause of colony loss once Varroa becomes established in a population. But the link between colony losses, Varroa and the viruses that it spreads remains correlational. The novel association between honey bees and Varroa has led to many instances of rapid co-evolution, where isolated populations have developed mechanisms to overcome the parasitic burden of mites. However, if honey bee deaths are due to particular viruses, we might expect Varroa-resistant bee populations to exhibit different viral landscapes compared to sensitive bees. Here, I show that virus diversity in Varroa-tolerant honey bees is complex; in some cases involving extreme virus levels, strain recombination and novel virus species. I show that transmission route, immune response and viral virulence all contribute to the complex host-parasite interaction between bees and mites, leaving us with the question: are viruses the true culprit behind bee declines? If so, how can we stop them?
Title: Spines, Sprays, and Shields: The Evolution of Prey Defenses and Aposematism in Mammals
Abstract: Many species have evolved elaborate physical defenses (armor, spines, noxious sprays, toxins) to avoid predation and stay safe. The factors that influence why such defenses evolve are less clear, but exposure to predators clearly serves as a strong source of selection. Using comparative evolutionary analyses and behavioral research on wild skunks and coyotes, we can understand how and why defenses evolve, how having a defense influences risk assessment and fear, and how predators learn about warning coloration and prey defenses. Dr. Stankowich will discuss his research on why and how defenses have evolved in mammals (e.g., armadillos, pangolins, skunks, porcupines), and what the consequences have been to the other aspects of their lives, including their perceptions of fear and cognitive ability.
Title: Life in the City: how nature persists in urban environments and why it matters
Abstract: We often think of cities as concrete wastelands, where humans and their structures dominate and degrade our natural systems. The reality is that a surprising number of animals and plants manage to persist in cities. Some even thrive, seemingly better off in our modern cities than in their natural habitats. I will outline the ways in which animals and plants respond to ecological pressures as diverse as habitat loss, pollution, and exotic invasion, identifying how ecological interactions can be maintained in these highly modified urban systems. I will also discuss the human dimension of urban ecology, identifying how promoting biodiversity in these degraded systems enhances wellbeing and the ultimate sustainability of cities.
Title: How do ecological interactions alter energy use and what are the consequences for community function?
Abstract: A key goal of ecology is to make predictions across levels of ecological organisation. How much energy an organism uses can be used to make inferences across scales and could be a valuable tool to predict how energy fluxes will change with warming temperatures. But given the rarity of experimental tests it remains unclear whether individual rates are sufficient to predict the functioning of whole populations and communities. In other words, is energy flow simply the sum of individual rates or the more complex product of species interactions? I will present work that explores how competitive interactions modify the intake and use of resources in populations and communities. I will then discuss how competition can change energy fluxes of whole communities, altering their stability and function.
Title: Molecular diversification of the seminal fluid proteome in a recently diverged passerine species pair.
Abstract: Seminal fluid (SF) proteins have diverse roles in a range of reproductive processes, including sperm maturation and function, female post-mating behaviour, and ovulation. SF proteins also mediate gamete interactions and fertilization, suggesting they may contribute to reproductive barriers between diverging lineages. Nevertheless, our knowledge of SF divergence, particularly in models for speciation, is limited. In this talk, I will discuss my research into the molecular differentiation of seminal fluid in a two species of Passer sparrow - the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and Spanish sparrow (P. hispaniolensis). Using a combination of proteomics and comparative evolutionary genomics, I identified and compared the SF proteome of the two sparrow species, and included 11 species in a multiple sequence alignment to examine molecular evolution of SF proteins in passerine birds more generally. Finally, using whole genome resequencing data, I assessed genomic differentiation between the two species in SF genes. I will present the results of this work, and discuss these findings in the context of barriers to reproduction between the species and the potential role of male ejaculates in reproductive isolation.
Title: Real time science to engage students (and why video games are the future)
Abstract: Are you reading this? Oh wow! Okay. I didn't people actually read abstracts. Ummm... I guarantee this talk won't be anything like what you're used to. That may be good or bad, depending on what you're used to though. So I should say that my goal here will be to chat about science and how games and apps can be used to perform experiments live in the classroom. This is real-time stuff I'm talking about here. Forget flipped classrooms - this is next level! I'll talk about how this has the potential to change science education, science communication, and more importantly, how this approach can be used to improve diversity and equity in science. I'll also talk a little about my research on human evolution and how this can inform education and diversity in science. Hope to see you there!
Title: Sex specific plasticity in life-history and the mating system of Nephila senegalensis
Abstract: The genus Nephila is well known for its extremes, such as the extreme size differences between the sexes, their extremely large golden orb-webs and their curious adaptions to an unusual mating system such as regular sexual cannibalism, mate plugging, male emasculation, one-shot genitalia and spermatogenesis that terminates at maturation. However, species differ in presence-absence and the combination of the above traits. I will present data from several experiments on Nephila senegalensis from Southern Africa, a species with a pronounced reversed sexual dimorphism and a very large variation within the sexes. Using controlled feeding studies in a split-brood design we explore the causes and fitness consequences of this variation and shed some light on sex-specific selection pressures. Staged mating competition between two males from different size classes revealed balanced paternity gains of large, medium and small males although achieved by different means. Genital damage does not occur in N. senegalensis and males can mate repeatedly although they can only charge their pedipalps once. Hence, while males have a potentially unlimited mating rate, the limitation in sperm supplies opens the scene for curious sperm investment strategies explained to some degree by interactions between male and female body sizes. The recent discovery of endosymbiotic bacteria that seem to influence crucial selection parameters such as sex ratio but also growth, adds another level of complexity to this fascinating study system.
Title: Deconstructing a visual signal: An exploration of the wing-waving display in tephritid flies against their jumping spider predators
Abstract: Pursuit deterrence signals are sent by prey to ward off or spoil an attack from potential predators. These signals can benefit both prey and predator, since prey survive a potential attack and predators conserve energy and potentially avoid damage caused by an alert prey. Some flies of the family Tephritidae perform wing displays to jumping spider predators, and thereby escape predation. In this talk, I will use this model system to explore several issues in visual ecology to understand the mechanisms and function of an unusual signal, using a combination of behavioural experiments, spider retinal eye-tracking and visual modelling.
Title: From individual to collective building in social insects.
Abstract: Social insects, such as ants and termites are capable of building large networks of foraging trails and nests with complex architecture. We know that the construction of these structures is mediated by self-organisation processes, whereby the final structure 'emerges' from multiple interactions of the insects with each other and with their environment. However, it is not until recently that we have started to get a better understanding of the fine-scale organisation of the built structures and of the individual-level rules of behaviour that mediate their construction. In my talk I will illustrate with some examples from ants and termites how relatively complex forms can be generated by simple rules.
Title: Humanity’s fascination with death and the supernatural has influenced science for centuries.
Abstract: The desire to overcome death and understand the strange and unusual of the human condition has inspired many scientists throughout history, particularly within the fields of anatomy and medicine. At this special seminar, Leslie New, PhD, assistant professor of statistics at WSU Vancouver, will take us on a tour of some of the weirdest specimens from museum collections in the western world and describe how scientists through the centuries have tried to understand death and the afterlife. Come join us for a walk through the more macabre corners of science.
Her research interests focus of the use of hierarchical Bayesian state-space models to study species interactions with the environment, other species and con-specifics. State-space models are particularly advantageous for ecological modelling, since they enable the direct inclusion of uncertainty associated with data collection and natural stochasticity. She is interested in using state-space, and other relevant statistical models, to investigate how changes in individual behavior due to disturbance, either anthropogenic or natural, can affect population dynamics. This can improve our understanding of species’ response to management and conservation initiative under various social, economic and environmental systems, as well as the sustainability of human activities. Her current research is focused on estimating the impact of wind facilities on eagles in the United States and the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in reducing the impacts of anthropogenic noise on cetaceans in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Title: Understanding the Carbon and Water economy in plants
Abstract: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere for photosynthesis at the expenses of losing water through transpiration. Articulating this trade-off across environmental conditions remains as a major challenge in modelling optimal plant behavior and largely limited by our ability for quantifying those fluxes at the appropriate spatial (plant scale) and temporal (from seconds to hours, day and seasons) scales. In this talk, I will discuss emerging opportunities from ecosystem-scale eddy covariance fluxes for improving our theoretical understanding going forward.