Popular science talk

​Origin of Biodiversity, the second research programme hosted by Gothenburg Centre of Advanced Studies in Science and Technology, is a crossdisciplinary thematic programme where researchers from biology, medicine, mathematics, physics and computer science gather to reach new insights in the evolution of biodiversity on earth.  The ten week programme is led by Professor Scott Edwards from Harvard University, local host is Karin Hårding.

Professor Scott EdwardsThe programme was officially opened on April 19, when also the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre was inaugurated. Director Alexandre Antonelli described the centre, which is a collaboration between the following functions at the University of Gothenburg: Department of Biological and Environmental Science, Department of Earth Sciences, Department of Marine Sciences, Herbarium GB, Centre for Sea and Society and the Centre for Marine Evolutionary Biology. Professor Scott Edwards has agreed to lead the advisory board of the centre.

Professor Edwards mentioned that he had not seen any other crossdisciplinary thematic programmes as this before, but thought it is a wonderful idea. He briefly went through the five workshops within the programme, where the first (already finished) tackled the question of tropical biodiversity – why are there so many species in the tropics compared to the rest of the world? The second workshop deals with sexual selection and conflict, such as size differences between sexes in a species and courtship behavior, and why such patterns exist. Next come questions of phylogenomics and phylogeography: with new large scale data sets the tree of life can be updated. The fourth workshop is about the co-evolution of hosts and pathogens, and in the last workshop the role of museums and herbaria in the 21st century, which take a lot of place in the campuses, but from whose speciments amazing kinds of information can be had.

Origins of BiodiversityThe popular science talk was called Origins of biodiversity: birds, dinosaurs and DNA. The research on birds and evolution started with Darwin, who noticed a gap in the fossil records between reptiles and birds when Origin of Species was released in 1859. Only two years later one of the most important fossils was found, Archaeopteryx, which linked those groups of species. Similarities between dinosaurs and modern birds were investigated and detailed genealogy of extinct ancestors of the birds could be had. An example of a research area is the respiratory system, as birds breathe in an entirely different way from mammals, which allow them to live a fast-phased life. A similar respiratory system has been found in therapod dinosaurs. Another common trait to all flyers, birds as well as bats, is the size of cells and genomes, which is much smaller than otherwise. When researching how genome size has changed through the millennia, paleohistology can establish the correlation with extinct species, and it has been shown that small genomes first arose in the non-flying therapod dinosaurs. Flight was not the prime influence of the genome size, but a high-energy lifestyle.

A beginning of a phylogenetic tree of modern birds has been made through the analysis of 50 bird genomes, and this is exciting times for understanding the tree of life for modern birds. There is sometimes conflicts between fossils and the geographic ranges of the birds today, and it is not easy to decide where the species originated. There is also the question if evolutionary change depends on genes, or gene regulation. For example, the origin of feathers is very old. Recent and ancient regulators of genes for feathers track the rise and fall of the feature. There are no feather genes, but feather gene regulators which changed when feathers evolved.

Professor Edwards concluded by talking a little bit about the work concerned by how birds fare in the world today, as the surveys made of bird populations and where they gain, are stable or lose numbers. There is also research being made on how modern birds sing, as the same species sing differently in rural surroundings and in cities. The birds of today, as of the past, face ever-present challenges.

Published: Mon 24 Apr 2017.