It’s almost here: the biggest (~2400 attendees) evolution conference ever! I’m excited. I’ve only ever attended the evolution meeting once before, in 2009 in Idaho when it was much smaller because there were fewer societies involved. Evolution 2009 was the best conference I’ve ever attended in terms of the quality of the presentations, the standard of science on display was just incredibly high. I’m not sure how much of that was down to me knowing less about evolution than I do about ecology and so being more easily impressed than at ecology conferences, vs. me choosing talks well, vs. all the talks just being really good. But I think it was mostly the latter. So I’m psyched for this year’s iteration.
As with any big meeting (although this meeting actually seems a bit small to a regular ESA attendee like me), you can’t see everything and shouldn’t try. You need to have a focus. My focus reflects my goal to build up my currently-modest sideline of research in evolutionary ecology, using bacteria as a model system. I’m trying to identify some interesting questions I can address with experimental microbial evolution without doing genomics (as that’s still too expensive for me, and also very far from my training). I admit that it’s not entirely clear if this is still possible. One thing I took away from the 2009 meeting was that the genomics train hadn’t only left the station, it was more like a genomics rocket that was blasting into orbit, leaving people like me far behind (unless we collaborate with the people on the rocket, of course). My hope is that, even in the genomics era, there’s still a place for clever experiments describing and evolving interesting patterns of phenotypic and fitness variation across environments. The sort of experiments that would be cool to follow up with genomics–but that are also interesting in their own right.
So my focus for the meeting is experimental microbial evolution. That won’t fill my entire schedule, and so I’ll also be seeing talks by friends, a few talks by famous people who I haven’t seen speak (just to fill out my “speaker life list”), and some talks on other topics that just sound interesting. I’m also judging the student awards, so I’ve been assigned a few student talks. In order to maximize the amount of new stuff I learn, I’ll probably skip some talks by well-known folks who I think are mostly going to say things I’ve seen them say before.
I’ll also be looking to see if studies of “field model organisms” like Darwin’s finches, Caribbean anoles, and threespine stickleback are continuing to bear fruit. As David Hembry suggests, the fact that we know so much about these organisms makes them powerful systems for asking questions that just can’t be asked elsewhere. But the fact that these systems are so famous and popular also increases the risk of bandwagony studies, and studies that just fill in minor details in a nearly-complete picture. Doing really original and important work in these systems is in some ways especially difficult, not especially easy.
So what am I going to see? I don’t have time to preview my entire schedule in detail, plus it wouldn’t necessarily be of huge interest unless your focus was similar to mine. But as a summary, I’ve scheduled pretty much everything on experimental evolution of bacteria, phage, and yeast. That includes a bunch of talks and posters from the groups of folks like Rich Lenski, Rees Kassen, Graham Bell, Mike Travisano, and others. Here are some talks on other topics that I’m planning to see, all of which should be very good, so I encourage you to check them out as well:
- Sat. 9:15, Canada Hall 2-3: Sean Rogers on Genomic approaches to studying speciation in postglacial fishes. You know how I said that genomics is taking off like a rocket? My Calgary colleague Sean Rogers is like the pilot of that rocket.
- Sat. 3:15, Canada Hall 2-3: Carl Boettiger on Detecting evolutionary regime shifts with comparative phylogenetics. Carl is super-smart, his talk at ESA last year on detecting early warnings of ecological regime shifts blew me away. Now he’s turning his attention to analogous problems in evolution. Looks like he has some really creative ideas in terms of both identifying the problem and on how to solve it.
- Sat. 3:45, Room 208: Andrew Furness on Adaptation to environmental unpredictability: phenotypic plasticity and bet-hedging in egg diapause. I think bet-hedging is cool (keep trying and failing to think of something I could do on it myself), so I want to see this.
- Sat. 4:00, Room 215: Leithen M’Gonigle on Sexual selection enables long-term coexistence despite ecological equivalence. I’m interested in coexistence, and results coming out of my own lab (see below) suggest that sexual reproduction combined with species interactions creates some novel effects on coexistence. This talk sounds like it might be broadly related. Plus, while I don’t know Dr. M’Gonigle, some of the co-authors (Sally Otto, Ulf Dieckmann) are among the best theoreticians going.
- Sun. 11:00, Canada Hall 2-3: Bronwyn Rayfield on Habitat connectivity and population dynamics in experimental networks. Bronwyn is sharp, she works with my friend and collaborator Andy Gonzalez, and like my students (see below) she works on spatial population dynamics using powerful lab-based model systems. So I really want to see this.
- Sun. 1:30, Room 201: Jeremy Fox on Local adaptation and maladaptation in space and time: aquatic bacteria as a model system. Yours truly will talk about what I think is a novel experimental approach, doing reciprocal transplants across time as well as space in order to test for local adaptation. Yes, you can do this; all you need is a “time machine” (to see what I mean you’ll have to come to the talk). And I’ll be presenting what I think are some surprising results. And if that’s not enough incentive, there will be free beer.
- Sun. 4:00, Room 204: Ben Haller on Solving the paradox of stasis: Stabilizing selection and the limits of detection. Ben is a graduate student with Andrew Hendry. He won the “craziest thing you’ve ever done for science” thread by doing a simulation modeling study, the results of which required 2.5 billion regressions to analyze. I like to imagine Ben as Dr. Evil, putting his pinkie to his mouth and announcing that he plans to run one milllllllion regressions. Only to have a member of his committee clear his throat and whisper that one million regressions isn’t really all that impressive these days. To which Ben responds by going “Ok, two-point-five…[sidelong glance at committee member] billlllllion regressions!” (click the link if you have no idea what I’m talking about). In seriousness, this does sound like an interesting talk, independent of the whole “an-approach-so-crazy-only-a-grad-student-would-do-it” angle.
- Mon. 4:30, Room 210: Dave Vasseur on Local adaptation alters the impact of spatial population synchrony. David is a good friend and collaborator, but I’d go to this even if he wasn’t either. Because David is really sharp and gives a very good talk. This is a theoretical talk on eco-evolutionary dynamics, looking at the interplay of population cycles, dispersal, and local selection. Dispersal easily synchronizes population cycles over space, which you’d think would result in temporally-fluctuating but spatially-uniform selection pressures and hence lack of local adaptation. But it’s not as simple as that, because (if I correctly recall Dave’s summary of the talk) localized selection can alter the spatial synchrony of the system. I suspect every microcosmologist who sees this is going to rush out to try to be the first to test it.
- Tue. 8:45 am, Room 203: Stephen Hausch on Diversity, coexistence, and competitive ability: The effect of intraspecific diversity on invasibility and invadability in bruchid beetles. Full disclosure: Stephen is my student (co-advised with Steve Vamosi). Full honesty: this talk is really cool. In particular, if you’re into eco-evolutionary dynamics, you need to see this. Stephen has done a massive experiment looking at how intraspecific genetic diversity affects coexistence (mutual invasibility) in two competing species of bean beetles. The effects of intraspecific genetic diversity on species coexistence is an important, under-studied, and hot topic right now; the best current thinking on how it works was the subject of a major review in TREE recently. As far as we can tell, Stephen’s results can’t be explained by any of the ideas in that review.
- Tue. 9:00, Room 203: Colin Olito on The interacting roles of foraging biology, flowering phenology and trait evolution in determining pollination network structure. After you see Stephen’s talk, just stay where you are so you can see my second student, Colin Olito. It’ll be quite different than Stephen’s talk, but equally good. It’s a modeling talk, looking at how the structure of plant-pollinator interaction networks emerges from the underlying phenologies of flowering plants and pollinators and the foraging decisions of pollinators. A novel aspect of this model is incorporating eco-evolutionary dynamics. Pollinator foraging and species’ current phenologies creates selection pressures that shift plant phenologies (e.g., to avoid competition for pollinators), which feeds back to alter the pollinator foraging and thus the selection pressures. The model builds on previous work by Devaux and Lande, who radically simplified pollinator foraging and phenology. It is quite rich and complicated (as is necessary if you want to ground your model in reality rather than in mathematical convenience), but not intractably so. For instance, you can turn off different features of the model so as to ask how they affect the model behavior, particularly the long-run plant-pollinator interaction networks structure. If you, like Colin and I, are dissatisfied with theoretical studies of interaction networks that are disconnected from real plant-pollinator interaction biology, this is the talk for you.
- Tue. 11:00, Room 203: Geoff Legault on The threshold for dispersal-induced spatial synchrony in a model system. I can only assume that, in scheduling all three of my students for the final day, the organizers were trying to save the best for last. Geoff’s talk is on the latest results from my lab on spatial synchrony of population cycles. In previous work, we’ve shown in microcosm experiments that dispersal between habitat patches “phase locks” the predator-prey cycles in those patches, so that prey populations in different patches all cycle in near-perfect synchrony (i.e. in phase). This strongly suggests that phase locking may explain why cyclic populations in nature often are synchronized over vast areas. But it also raises a question: how does synchrony vary as a function of dispersal rate? In theory, the effect of dispersal rate on synchrony should be highly nonlinear, basically a threshold effect: you either have enough dispersal to produce phase locking, and thus very high synchrony, or else you don’t have enough, in which case you get no synchrony at all. We did an experiment to test that prediction, the first ever done in ecology as far as we know (analogous experiments have been done in fields like neuroscience, which deals with synchrony of neuronal firing).