In broad terms I am interested how different evolutionary processes shape genes and genomes, generate diversity and lead to adaptation and speciation. Apart from solving the mystery of speciation I have also been interested in…
Genetic basis of chemical communication in ants
Insects are adapted to a world of smells and chemosensation has an essential role in chemical recognition of mates, predators and food resources. Social insects add yet another dimension to the study of chemosensory genomics, as the key components of their social life rely on chemical communication.
Large gene families contribute to the first steps of receiving chemical messages. Chemosensory proteins (CSPs) and odorant binding proteins (OBPs) are the first ones to interact with the chemical messages. These proteins bind and transport the insoluble odorants to odorant receptors. CSPs are particularly interesting in ants, as they have a role in binding the nest-mate recognition cues.
I have studied the evolution of CSPs in ants, and found that the number of functional CSP genes has increased in all the seven ant species studied. Those CSPs that are specific to ants evolve under positive natural selection, suggesting different CSP copies have adapted to slightly different tasks.
Together with Heli Salmela we studied which parts and properties of chemosensory proteins have been affected by positive selection. Interestingly, positive selection has targeted the surface rather than the binding pocket, and natural selection seems to drive variation in CSP surface charge. Variable surface charge likely has functional importance for example by affecting ligand binding, interaction between CSPs and odorant receptors, or is connected to the cellular environment of CSP expression.
On a completely different field of science communication, I have studied the public understanding of evolution. In my master’s thesis I studied the common misconceptions of evolution and whether there is a conflict between religious beliefs and evolutionary theory.
At the time of writing I am ploughing ahead into my second year of PhD studies. My thesis is concerned with investigating the causes and consequences of hybridization in the curious European Red Wood ants that are abound here in Finland. Though I have varied research interests, I’m particularly fascinated by the genetics of speciation; that fundamental process that gives rise to all novel biodiversity. While speciation is broadly understood, the genetic mechanisms at it’s heart remain elusive, and that’s where I hope to delve.
Beyond my research, I am enthusiastic organizer of extracurricular activities like the Spring Symposium for Biology PhD’s here in Helsinki. I have also taken part in the Helsinki Science Slam (and won!) with two of my brilliant peers, where we delivered a performance about our work through poetry.
The aim of my work is studying variation in Wolbachia strains within hybridizing wood ants. One interesting thing seen in a hybrid population is that the female hybrids are favoured by natural selection while the male hybrids are selected against and die during development. To see whether the Wolbachia bacteria play any role in mediating behaviour or reproduction and if so then to check how many strains exist in the hybrid population, pooled genomic data from two different ant lineages and transcriptomics data at individual level will be studied using the bioinformatics tools.
I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in Biochemistry and was looking for a new exciting way to use my knowledge of bioinformatics and evolution. So, finding Jonna’s group was a total stroke of luck, which is proving to be fun and interesting and hoping my work helps to achieve even a part of the aim of the research. Go ants!
Post doctoral researcher
My current focus is on analyzing genomic regions that are hypothesized to underlie the sex-related differences in hybridization of the Formica species.
I am interested in evolutionary processes in general. My background is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and I wrote my MSc thesis combining a systems-level neuroscience topic with an evolutionary approach. At the moment my special interest is on developing my skills in bioinformatics – especially in programming and statistical analyses. Alternating with the research–related activities, I teach biology and geography at a secondary level.
Ann-Kristin Dicke, research intern (RISE)
Lucy Pluckrose, University of Sheffield (SURE student, Sheffield University Research Experience), Research assistant at University of Helsinki
Sam Morris, University of Sheffield (OnCampUs Placement project)
Katri Ketola, University of Helsinki (MSc)