California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
"Shedding Light on Specificity: The Evolutionary Ecology of a Bioluminescent Vertebrate-Microbe Symbiosis"
Abstract: Virtually all organisms depend on symbiotic associations with bacteria for their success, yet the processes by which these essential interactions are established and maintained over time remain largely undescribed. My research investigates the mechanisms that regulate specificity in a bioluminescent symbiosis involving a coral reef fish and a luminous bacterium. This highly specific, binary (one host and one symbiont) association provides an ideal opportunity with which to investigate specificity from a broad evolutionary scale down to the molecular level. Integrating genomics with field studies, I have identified key aspects of the host’s ecology that help to structure populations of its facultative symbiont over time and space, consequently promoting specificity between host generations. Using recently developed genomic tools and natural history collections, I am identifying factors that promoted symbiont specificity and diversification across the host genus and looking for patterns of co-divergence of host and symbiont. Overall, this bioluminescent vertebrate-microbe symbiosis is an ideal system that can help illuminate the mechanisms underlying the establishment, persistence, and evolution of our vital associations with beneficial bacteria.