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What is your study species?
Posted on November 20, 2012
As a biologist, you might be asked this question many times in conferences or other circumstances. I was actually at a loss for words when I was first asked this very simple question, not knowing whether to say “I have no study species” or “I study all species, known or unknown”.
Indeed, all species are the same (or nearly so) to me from the population genetics point of view. They are in the same family tree, have their genetic makeup encoded and passed on by DNA (some by RNA) and share the same or similar genetic code, and evolve under the influence of the same evolutionary forces of mutations, genetic drift, selection and migration. Thus either of my alternative answers is not too far wrong, but probably equally either is not exact and certainly unclear.
I guess what they really want to know is “what do you study?” (forgetting that some poor biologists like me have no favourite species). Indeed, I work on the theory and methodology of population genetics and their applications to conservation biology. On the theory side, I investigate the effects of genetic drift, inbreeding, mutation, selection, and migration on the microevolution of species/populations, strategies to control the evolutionary processes for the conservation of wild species and for the selective improvement of domesticated species. A recent piece of my work is on the genetic differentiation among populations. As we may agree, for both basic biology and practical conservation of a wild species, the first set of questions we would like to address are how many populations are there in a habitat? How distinctive (differentiated) genetically these populations are?
For conservation, answers to these questions will help in identifying evolutionary significant units (ESUs) and management units (MUs), and in erecting human-mediated migration, so on and so forth. The most widely applied differentiation statistics, Fst and Gst, are based on measuring the allele frequency differences among populations. They were proposed by the founders of population genetics, Sewell Wright in the 1930s and extended by Nasatoshi Nei in the 1970s. However, in 2008, they were challenged by Jost (Molecular Ecology 17, 4015–4026), who claimed that Gst is wrong and does not measure population differentiation. He proposed a new statistic, D, to replace Gst.
Jost’s work has received a lot of attention, and D has been applied by many peer-reviewed papers (more than 400 citations in less than 4 years time!) in high profile journals. Even some theoretical population geneticists and editors of peer reviewed journals support the use of D. However, I showed in my recent study that D is not only conceptually flawed, but also inestimable in practice. You can imagine how difficult it is to get work of this kind published when there are so many lovers of D. The paper was first submitted to Molecular Ecology, and was rejected after two rounds of criticisms (or misunderstandings, I would say) from both referees and editors. It was then submitted to Genetics Research. After two rounds of painful “fighting” with both editors and referees, they finally bought my points and accepted the paper for publication.
On the methodology side, I develop statistical methods, based on population genetics theory, to estimate from genetic marker data the important population parameters such as
population size, migration rate, admixture, inbreeding and relatedness. An example is a method I proposed for reconstructing pedigrees from marker data. It can be used to investigate, among many others, the mating systems, social structure, reproductive skew of a wild species from invasive or non-invasive (e.g. hair, faeces) samples. I am glad that the method and software I developed (‘Colony’) has now been widely applied. Within the Institute of Zoology, it has been used to analyse data from Sarah Durant’s cheetah project, Andrew Bourke’s ant project, Trent Garner and Amber Teacher’s frog project, Dada Gottelli’s Ethiopian wolf project, John Ewen and Patricia Brekke’s hihi project, Guy Cowlishaw’s baboon project, Seirian Sumner’s bumble bee and wasp projects, Bill Jordan and Rob Pickles’ giant otter project, Johanna Nielsen’s meerkat project, and more (sorry!). These have lead to high profile publications. A most recent study is Dada Gottelli’s Ethiopian wolf paper, which was published in Animal Conservation and was reported by the BBC. The software is also widely applied worldwide, not only for animals, but also for plants. In addition to Colony, I have 8 computer programs published on the Institute website for free download and use for various genetic data analyses (see here).
On the application side, my (or more exactly, my PhD students’) work is on the conservation/invasion genetics of various sexy species, including Sumatran tigers (by Tola Smith), European grey squirrels (by Lisa Signorile), Okapi (by David Stanton), meerkats (by Johanna Nielsen), and many species kept in zoos (by Lizzie Boakes).
The great thing about working on conservation genetics in the Institute is that there are so many high quality datasets on more sexy animals than you can ever imagine working on. Over the years, we have seen genetics being increasingly used as a valuable tool in animal behaviour, ecology and epidemiology studies by Institute scientists. With the advent of genomics, genetics will play an even more important role in probably all disciplines of biology.
Dr Jinliang Wang
Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Zoology