From Lisbon

Dear diary,

I’m at the Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology in Lisbon. It’s great, of course and I expected nothing less, but there is so much of it! Every session at ESEB has nine symposia running in parallel, so there are many paths through the conference programme. Mine contains a lot of genomics for obvious reasons.

Some highlights so far:

Juliette de Meaux’s plenary: while talking about molecular basis of adaptations in Arabidopsis thaliana — one study based on a candidate gene and one on a large-effect QTL — de Meaux brought up two fun concepts that would recur in Thomas Mitchel-Olds’ talk and elsewhere:

1) The ‘mutational target’ and how many genes there are that could possibly be perturbed to change a trait in question. The size of the mutational target and the knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the trait of course affects whether it is fruitful to try any candidate gene approaches. My intuition is to be skeptical of candidate gene studies for complex traits, but as in the case of plant pathogen defense (or melanin synthesis for pigmentation — another example that got a lot of attention in several talks), if there is only one enzyme pathway to synthesise a compound and only one step that controls the rate of the reaction, there will be very few genes that can physically be altered to affect the trait.

2) Some of both de Meaux’s and Mitchel-Olds’ work exemplify the mapping of intermediate molecular phenotypes to get at small-effect variants for organismal traits — the idea being that while there might be many loci and large environmental effects on the organismal traits, they will act through different molecular intermediates and the intermediate traits will be simpler. The intermediate traits might be flagellin bindning, flux through an enzymatic pathway or maybe transcript abundance — this is a similar line of thinking as the motivations for using genetical genomics and eQTL mapping.

The ”Do QTN generally exist?” symposium: my favourite symposium so far. (Note: QTN stands for Quantitative Trait Nucleotide, and it means nothing more than a known causal sequence variant for some quantitative trait. Very few actual QTN featured in the session, so maybe it should’ve been called ”Do QTG generally exist?” Whatever.) I’ve heard both him and Annalise Paaby present their RNA inference experiments revealing cryptic genetic variation in C. elegans before, but Matt Rockman also talked about some conceptual points (”things we all know but sometimes forget” [I’m paraphrasing from memory]): adaptation does not require fixation; standing variation matters; effect-size is not an intrinsic feature of an allele. There was also a very memorable question at the end, asking whether the answer to the questions Rockman posed at the beginning, ”What number of loci contribute to adaptive evolution?” and ”What is the effect-size distribution?” should be ”any number of loci” and ”any distribution” … To which Rockman answered that those were pretty much his views.

In the same symposium, Luisa Pallares, showed some really nice genome wide association result for craniofacial morphology from natural hybrid mice. As someone who works on an experimental cross of animals, I found the idea very exciting, and of course I immediately started dreaming about hybrid genetical genomics.

Dieter Ebert’s plenary: how they with lots of work seem to have found actual live Red Queen dynamics with Daphnia magna and Pasteuria ramosa.

Larry Young and Hanna Kokko: Young and Kokko had two very different invited talks back to back in the sex role symposium, Young about the neurological basis of pair-bonding in the famous monogamous voles, and Kokko about models of evolution of some aspects of sex roles.

Susan Johnston‘s talk: about how heterozygote advantage maintains variation at a horn locus in the Soay sheep of St Kilda. Simply awesome presentation and results. Published yesterday!

On to our stuff! Dominic Wright had a talk presenting our chicken comb work in the QTN session, and on Friday I will have a poster on display about the behaviour side of the project. There’s actually quite a few of us from the AVIAN group here, most of them also presenting posters on Friday (Anna-Carin, Johan, Amir, Magnus, Hanne, Rie). And (though misspelled) my name is on the abstract of Per Jensen‘s talk as well, making this my personal record for conference contribution.

The poster sessions are very crowded and a lot of the posters are hung facing the wall with very little space for walking past, and some of them behind pillars. In all probability there’s a greater than 0.5 chance that my poster will be in a horrible spot. But if you happen to be curious feel free to grab me anywhere you see me, or tweet at me.

I looke like this when posing with statues or when I’m visibly troubled by the sunlight. If you’re into genetical genomics for QTG identification, domestication and that kind of stuff, this is the hairy beast you should talk too.


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