More information about CAnMove and the research activities within the programme can be found at:


torsdag 17 februari 2011

Formation of a new CAnMove action group: "Phenomics and visualization"

Most of us who are directly and indirectly involved in CAnMove were probably attracted to ecology and evolutionary biology because we were interested in organisms. Remember what organisms are? It is those big fluffy things, surrounding the genome called "birds", "mammals", "insects" and "fish" which you can see out in nature.

With the development of (admittedly powerful) new molecular tools, such as "Next-generation sequencing" and various genomic techniques, it seems, however, that biology and ecology have becoming increasingly reductionist disciplines. The appreciation for organisms and phenotypics traits have vaned, and partly been lost on the way. This is unfortunate, since next-generation sequencing has many pitfalls and problems. These techniques will certainly not solve all the remaining questions in ecology and evolutionary biology, in spite of frequent claims that it will.

As a matter of fact, ten years after the full sequence of the human genome was presented, there has been many disappointments,, and in spite of thousands of molecular markers developed for interesting human and highly heritable traits (e. g. height, diabetes etc.), only a tiny fraction of the heritable variation has been "picked up" and been detected by these thousands of molecular markers. This is called "The missing heritability problem" and refers to the fact that molecular and genomic techniques have been disappointly inefficient in explaining the abundant genetic variation in phenotypic traits, for both humans and other animals.

These disappointments from human genome research have certainly many practical consequences, as we are still very far from what was promised a decade ago that we would be able to have "personalized medicine" and individual treatments based on knowledge of individuals genotypes. Today, it is still much more efficient to predict an individuals probability of carrying certain genetic factors for a disease by asking them to fill out a questionary about their relative's disease history, than sequencing their genome!

This will also have some implications for studies of animal migration, including the search for so-called magic "migration genes". Even if such genes exist and even if we would be able to locate their genomic positions, the molecular markers that we will find will (at best) only explain a few percent of the phenotypic variation in migratory behaviour, except in unusual systems and circumstances. There is no reason that the search for such genes for interesting phenotypic traits in other animals will be different from the overall conclusion from studies of the human genome: most phenotypic adaptations are due to many genes of small effect size, and large-effect genes are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Quantitative genetics has, against what many predicted a decade ago, survived well and triumphed, as it is still the most efficient and cost-effective way of quantifying genetic variation in natural populations.

However, to move ecology and evolutionary biology forwards, we need also new and more efficeint ways of measuring and quantifying the phenotypes of organisms, whether those phenotypes are behavioural, morphological or physiological. This is the new and emerging field of phenomics as outlined by evolutionary geneticist David Houle in a couple of important articles (here and here) that will soon replace the more old-fashioned field of genomics. Well, perhaps phenomics will not replace genomics, but it will certainly complement its more reductionist enterprise. Ultimately, we want to understand phenotypes and how they evolve, and it is clear that genomics will not deliver as much as it was promised a decade ago. Phenomics aims to fill the missing knowledge gap here.

Phenomics is a collective name for the development of high-throughput phenotypic scoring and measurement techniques that can be used to rapidly quantify phenotypes, including 3D-laser scanning, data loggers to record behaviour and physiology, and various photographic and photometric techniques, e. g. thermal image cameras, of individuals under field conditions. These and other techniques will revolutionize our field in the future, in the same way like population genetics has been radically transformed by the vast information from genomics. The development of phenomics as a research field will require collaborations between ecologists, evolutionary biologists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and programmers, like all other highly integrative research fields.

It is there clearly time that both CAnMove and Lund need to early get involved in the emerging field of phenomics, so that we do not get caught in yesterday's hat of genomics and are left behind the rapidly moving research front. For this reason, we have decided to form a new Action Group within CAnMove entitled "Phenomics and data visualization". Those of you who are interested in participating in this could contact me (erik.svensson@zooekol.lu.se) or CAnMove coordinator (susanne.akesson@zooekol.lu.se). The core of this group, apart from me and Susanne, will also be Anders Hedenström, but others who might want to join in should contact us with their idéas and suggestions.

fredag 11 februari 2011

CAnMove announces two new Stipends!

The titles of the two vacant Stipends are:

“Community metagenomics of Antarctic Protists – the importance of history versus environment”


Immunological and physiological adaptations to migration: comparing migrating – sedentary populations and species”

The announcements are found at: http://www.naturvetenskap.lu.se/o.o.i.s/26278

Apply before 7th of March!

torsdag 3 februari 2011

How did the Vikings navigate under cloudy skies?

In a recent paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, CAnMove coordinator in collaboration with a team lead by an optical physicist Dr Gabor Horváth at Eötvös University in Budapest report on recent findings on how Viking navigators possibly could have used so-called sunstones to determine the position of the sun under foggy and cloudy conditions. The team for part of their work measured the skylight polarization under different optical conditions during an expedition (Beringia 2005) to the North Pole in 2005 organized by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. Based on these and additional measurements and psychophysical laboratory experiments we suggest that the optical physical conditions required for sun navigation by using sunstones are met under cloudy and foggy conditions, such that the pattern of skylight polarization are transmitted through the clouds and correspond to the pattern seen under clear sky conditions. Overall there is a reduction in degree of polarization of the incoming light under cloudy and foggy skies, but the pattern of skylight polarization is very similar to what is seen in a clear sky. It has been suggested that Vikings have used Icelandic spar (calcite) or possibly crystals of tourmaline, which are birefringent crystals (linearly polarizing crystals), to determine the Sun’s position when it could not be seen in the sky. It is a theory which has been discussed for a long time, however, still such sunstones have not been found in association with Shipwrecks from the Viking ages. Now we show that the optical prerequisites for sunstone navigation are met.

A more popular account of the recent findings is presented at e.g.
Nature News.

In the issue of Phil Trans also other work are presented from CAnMove scientist Rachel Muheim on polarization navigation in birds and by Marie Dacke and Eric Warrent in the Vision group at the Department of Biology at Lund University on the use of polarized light day and night-active insects.