Research Interests of the Plant Evolutionary Genomics Group

© WickeLab
  • Lathraea clandestina
    Lathraea clandestina
    © Wicke Lab

    Genetic reconfigurations en route to a nonphotosynthetic lifestyle in plants


    Parasitic plants of the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) steal both water and nutrients from other plants. Amongst the world's most problematic parasitic weeds are broomrapes (Orobanche s.l.) and witchweeds (Striga), which attack the roots of important cereals and vegetable crops. Fundamental knowledge of the molecular evolutionary forces and constraints influencing the evolution of parasitism within Orobanchaceae would help us to develop more effective and sustainable pest control procedures.

    The goal of this research is to identify commonalities as well as adaptive and nonadaptive genetic reconfigurations that are associated with the transition from an autotrophic to a holoparasitic way of life within the Orobanchaceae. The proposed research program exploits the unique, natural genetic diversity of the broomrape family, which comprises the full trophic spectrum including nonparasites, hemiparasites of various specializations and holoparasites that have evolved multiple times independently. We will test whether and which genetic changes precede or follow the transition to holoparasitism and if these reconfigurations occur in a predictable order.

    A primary aim is to disentangle the nature and direction of molecular evolutionary shifts in the genes of the parasites. To this end, we use qualitative and quantitative RNA and DNA sequencing to compare the gene sets and gene expression patterns between several autotrophic and heterotrophic Orobanchaceae. A key aspect lies in employing existing and devising novel probabilistic models to investigate our research hypotheses in a unified computational framework that fuses genotypic and phenotypic information. This study thus will allow assessing the interplay between changes in the genetic profile of closely related parasitic plants and the underlying molecular evolutionary forces that act as fuel for macroevolutionary change - and vice versa.

    The well-developed Orobanchaceae model system in combination with state-of-the-art molecular evolutionary methods provides the ideal tool to develop an explanatory model for the genetic changes associated with trophic specialization in plants. The more than five independent transitions to holoparasitism in the family will enable us to specifically examine whether adaption to this way of life has occurred in at least as many different ways, and help us to identify the functions associated with these lifestyle. Our research objectives thereby focus on key questions concerning the genetics of Orobanchaceae and, at the same time, address unresolved issues of molecular rate variation in plants. Thus, our work will contribute towards unraveling the causes and consequences of the transition to parasitism in plants and identifying its underlying mechanisms. Comparative biocomputational approaches in evolutionary biology will further the development of a generalized explanatory model of the effects of genomic and phenotypic shifts, which will impact research areas in many branches of the life sciences.

    This project is mainly funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) in the Emmy Noether-Program.

    © DFG
  • Castilleja cf. linearifolia
    Castilleja cf. linearifolia
    © Wicke Lab

    Nutritional specialization and host-related diversification in parasitic plants

    Parasitism represents the most extreme interaction between plants, where the parasitic plant steals water and nutrients from another plant. The dependency on a host represents an isolating barrier absent from nonparasites, which eventually changes diversification patterns as parasitism intensifies. The Orobanchaceae family represents a natural model system for studying host-related diversification in plants. The species-rich family comprises nonparasitic species as well as hundreds of parasites that differ in their lifestyle as photosynthetic or nonphotosynthetic parasites, their degree of host dependency, and their host preferences. By attacking the roots of important crops such as maize, legumes, canola, and many vegetables including tomato and potato, some Orobanchaceae such as Striga, Orobanche, and Phelipanche have become the agro-economically most important parasitic weeds. The potential for the evolution of more agricultural pests is high, because many wild Orobanchaceae share similar ecological preferences and/or life histories with their noxious relatives. Despite this, we lack phylogenetic models for the spatio-temporal, host-ecological, and genomic evolution of the entire family, which would allow assessing the risk of co-domesticating new virulent ecotypes.

    The goal of this research is to understand the mechanisms and tempo of the diversification of parasitic Orobanchaceae, for which we will reconstruct the biogeographical and host-ecological history of Orobanchaceae, test if host or abiotic environmental preferences, or both, have drive their diversification, and analyze the evolution of gene diversity en route to a fully parasitic lifestyle. Molecular evolutionary and phylogenetic-comparative methods provide the sound basis for testing spatio-temporal, evolutionary-ecological, and functional-genetic hypotheses. We aim to disentangle the host-effect from abiotic environmental influences that contribute to parasite diversification by testing in a Bayesian framework, if shifts of diversification rates in relation to changes in the degree of trophic specialization correlate with shifts of host ranges and/or environmental preferences. Genomic data from parasites of varying trophic levels and host preferences will allow us to isolate those genes that are potentially involved in parasitic processes in general, and nutritional specialization in particular. Because of the arms race with their hosts, “parasitism genes” evolve under distinct selectional regimes, which we will detect with a rigorous analysis of molecular evolutionary rates and selection pressures in a Maximum Likelihood and Bayesian framework. In the long run, the fundamental insights into the biology of parasitic Orobanchaceae to be delivered by this project will contribute to the international efforts of managing infestations of parasitic weeds in agriculture.

    This project is supported by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development in its Young PI-Program.

    © GIF
  • Different strains of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
    © Wicke Lab

    Point of no return: Metabolic adaptations along the shift from photo-autotrophy to a heterotrophic lifestyle

    The chlorophytic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is not limited to a photo-autotrophic lifestyle but can also live heterotrophically under no-light conditions in the presence of acetate as an external carbon source. This form of myxotrophy can be regarded as a major eco-physiological and evolutionary advantage. It allows C. reinhardtii and many other algae to adapt rapidly to natural fluctuations of the available light and nutrient resources. Niche shifting to a permanent heterotrophic lifestyle will evolve highly adapted C. reinhardtii populations, whose specialist individuals exhibit an increased fitness under zero-light conditions compared to the original myxotrophs that experience no-light environments only temporarily. The function of genes and protein complexes conveying photo-autotrophy will be relaxed of purifying selection in the heterotrophic selection line, because genes for photosynthesis are of no more use. An evolutionary experiment that controls for various selection pressures will aim to elucidate the timing and series of adaptive genomic and metabolic changes associated with the transition from mixotrophy to permanent heterotrophic conditions, thus simulating the transition from facultative to obligate heterotrophy in plants. Specifically, we will investigate”

    1. the pace with which fitness increases under strictly heterotrophic growth conditions,
    2. how fast and which (epi)-genetic, proteomic, and metabolic changes come about,
    3. whether genes whose function is dispensable under heterotrophic growth experience measurable shifts of their evolutionary rates, and, finally,
    4. if the newly indispensable nature of photosynthesis genes triggers co-evolutionary changes in genes and protein complexes that replicate and transcribe the now nonessential ones.

    To this end, we will evolve three lines of C. reinhardtii for >1,500 generations under heterotrophic (zero-light with acetate), mixotrophic (light plus acetate), and photo-autotrophic conditions (light without external carbon source). We will sample from up to ten replicates of each selection line per strain every 100th generation to measure biomass production, the assembly efficiency of the photosynthesis machinery, the metabolization of metals such as iron and magnesium, and the mating success between the various selection lines and their ancestors. We expect to observe an early fitness effect in the growth rates after less than 600 generations, with a fixation and accumulation of genomic and metabolic differentiations being highest in the heterotrophs. Every 200th generation, we will perform phenotypic, genomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic assays to infer the genetic responses to light exposure in the absence of external carbon. These data will be compared to the reference phenotypes, genomes, transcriptomes, and proteomes of the corresponding starter lines. Besides shedding light on the early functional reconfigurations during the transition to a secondary heterotrophic lifestyle, this project will generate a wealth of naturally selected C. reinhardtii lines with fine-tuned adaptations to various growth conditions that may aid future research in plant evolutionary biology as well as biotechnological application such as the production of biofuels under no-light conditions.

  • An integrated diagnostics workflow to detect parasitic weeds in environmental samples

    This research program aims to develop an integrated diagnostics procedure based on DNA (meta)barcodes extracted from genomic resources of wild and weedy parasites throughout the biodiversity range of Orobanchaceae. The envisioned workflow combines diagnostics and evolutionary inferences to identify parasites to their lowest taxonomic levels in a user-friendly toolkit. Sets of barcodes that qualify as ecotype-sensitive identifiers will be prepared for practical, semi-quantitative pull-down assays. Besides testing the discriminative power and sensitivity of suitable barcode combinations in silico, the integration of evolutionary analyses and, thus, the placement of marker development in an explicit phylogenetic framework, will improve our ability to delimitate taxa in rapidly evolving lineages where cryptic diversity is prevalent. The envisioned toolkit for high-throughput identification of parasitic weeds directly from environmental samples will allow assessing the genetic diversity of parasite seed banks and monitoring soil infestation levels over time while needing to convince by practicability and sensitivity experimentally. The development of a diagnostic workflow for Orobanchaceae will generate a positive feedback loop between basic eco-evolutionary research and applied life science en route to an ecotype-specific control of parasitic weeds, and potentially other common plant pests or diseases.

    We are looking for enthusiastic (under)graduate students or post-docs to help us challenge early version of our diagnostics tool – experimentally and/or bioinformatically! Interested researchers please email us, or drop by during regular office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

  • Gasterosteus aculeatus
    Gasterosteus aculeatus
    © Wicke Lab

    Transcriptomic interaction of a tapeworm with its host, the three-spined stickleback

    Parasitism is one of the most successful lifestyles on earth. Plants, animals, and even other parasites cannot escape being parasitized by others. Tapeworms cause severe diseases worldwide, affecting animals and humans alike. Our research focuses on the parasite Schistocephalus solidus that exhibits a complex lifecycle. First, it infects a small Crustacean, from which it transfers into its intermediate host, the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). The parasite grows in the fish’s abdominal cavity and apparently manipulates its host such that it, for example, loses its natural awe of predators. The tapeworm thus achieves its transfer to its final hosts, fish-eating birds, where the parasites matures and reproduces. This complex life cycle and the worm's ability to manipulate the behavior and immune system of its intermediate host makes S. solidus a fascinating research object. Our project focuses on transcriptomic changes of the tapeworm in response to its host. We use next generation sequencing techniques followed by a battery of biocomputational tools to examine the gene expression of S. solidus at different stages of its life cycle. Our aim is to unravel the genomic basis of the host-parasite interaction in this complex system, as understanding the molecular basis of host-parasite interactions will not only broaden our knowledge about evolutionary dynamics, but might also help to understand and eventually cure diseases.

    For further information see also: Kurtz Group, Research