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Felicity Jones: Mechanisms of Adaptation

Felicity Jones: Mechanisms of Adaptation
Group Leader, MPI Tubingen
Recommended by Hopi Hoekstra, Harvard University

When she was growing up in Australia, Felicity Jones' family spent a lot of time outdoors, going on hikes or camping, and Jones became fascinated with the biodiversity that she saw.

"I got very interested in that when I was really young and knew that I would be really interested to try and understand, 'Where did that come from and how did that happen?' And try to understand general principles about how species evolve," Jones said.

To study those evolutionary processes, she has focused on the stickleback fish as her model organism. It, she noted, has diverged repeatedly and in parallel, making it a good natural system to study since it has those built-in replicates.

Currently, her lab is using genomic tools to examine the molecular mechanisms underlying species divergence and adaptation to new environments. In particular, she and her team are sequencing those parallel stickleback populations and using bioinformatic approaches to narrow in on candidate adaptive loci. That work is supplemented by functional genetic studies using transgenic and other experimental manipulations in the lab. They are also turning to natural stickleback populations, particularly regions of admixture between the parallel populations.

"We go from genomics through to functional genetics through to field studies and natural populations," Jones said.

But sticklebacks are a relatively new model organism, and Jones said that while tools developed for zebrafish and other organisms can be adapted for studying sticklebacks, they always have to be validated and checked.

Another challenge is the phenotyping itself, Jones added, especially for evolutionary biology studies that are examining how DNA variants affect phenotype and fitness. The genetics, she noted, is no longer the limiting factor. "I think trying to understand the infinite dimensional space of phenotypes that exist [is]," she said, noting that studies examining how environmental influences affect gene expression will also be necessary.

Paper of note

In 2012, Jones and her colleagues published a report in Nature that presented a map of some 81 loci that appear to underpin stickleback adaptation to freshwater habitats. To do so, they first developed a reference stickleback genome sequence based on a female freshwater stickleback fish. They then sequenced an additional 20 fish from both marine and freshwater locales to find loci that differ between the two groups.

"It really gives us a great place to start doing functional dissections," Jones said.

Looking ahead

Going forward, Jones said, functional validation and experimental manipulation of recently uncovered DNA variation will be needed. For example, in her lab, she could examine how changes in water salinity affect fish with certain genotypes.

In evolutionary biology, she added, researchers will then have to focus on connecting those gene variants to fitness and survival, "and ultimately what natural selection is about," Jones said.