Declining biodiversity in… your filthy mouth

18 02 2013

green teethIt still amazes me that the more we look, the more we realise just how important intact ecosystems are for our own well-being. I guess this is why I’m still a scientist.

Our latest paper that just came out today in Nature Genetics is a bit of a departure for me (again!); I really must not take much credit for this given that it was a huge effort among a big team of people and I played a comparatively minor role. Still, I can definitely say this is one of the more interesting papers I’ve co-authored in a while.

For me the involvement started after Alan Cooper (Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA) asked me for a bit of help with a cool paper he and some of his colleagues were working on. When he told me what the subject was, my initial reaction was (yawn): Dentistry? Teeth? You’ve got to be joking. Why would an ecologist be even remotely interested in that stuff? Then he went into more detail, and I was hooked.

Before I get into that detail, I have to tell you a story about a colleague of mine (name withheld, but true story) who recently went to the dentist to have some routine cleaning and maintenance done. There was nothing particularly special about his visit – no local anaesthetic, no extractions, no caps, and certainly no surgery. Two weeks later he was in the hospital theatre getting his chest cracked open for open-heart surgery. Jesus H. Christ!, I said to myself. Read the rest of this entry »





Hades, fossilised fat-parrot shit and threatened bats

4 10 2012

WTF? © P. Bendle

Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, doesn’t it? But no, it’s about the wonderful complexity of ecology.

An interesting, and very weird paper just came out in Conservation Biology co-authored by my friend and colleague, Prof. Alan Cooper at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD).

Here’s what they have to say about it.

Ancient dung from a cave in the South Island of New Zealand has revealed a previously unsuspected relationship between two of the country’s most unusual threatened species.

Fossilised dung (coprolites) of a now rare parrot, the nocturnal flightless kakapo, contained large amounts of pollen of a rare parasitic plant, Dactylanthus, which lives underground and has no roots or leaves itself. The pollen suggests the kakapo was formerly an important pollinator for the threatened species, known as the Hades flower or wood rose. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at The University of Adelaide, and Landcare Research and the Department of Conservation in New Zealand report the discovery in the journal Conservation Biology.

Read the rest of this entry »





Ghosts of bottlenecks past

25 05 2012

© D. Bathory

I’ve just spent the last week at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern NSW coast for my third Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) (see previous post about my last ACEAS workshop).

This workshop is a little different to my last one, and I’m merely a participant (not the organiser) this time. Alan Cooper and members of his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (Jeremy Austin, Vicki Thomson & Julien Soubrier) combined forces this week with Craig Mortiz, Margaret Byrne, Steve Donnellan, Tania Laity, Leo Joseph, Xander Xue and Gabriele Cybis. Our task was to examine the mounting evidence that many Australian species appear to show a rather shallow genetic pool from a (or several) major past bottlenecks.

What’s a ‘bottleneck’? In reference to the form after which it was named, a genetic bottleneck is the genetic diversity aftermath after a population declines to a small size and then later expands. The history of this reduction and subsequent expansion is written in the DNA, because inevitably gene ‘types’ are lost as most individuals shuffle off this mortal coil. In a way, it’s like losing a large population of people who all speak different languages – inevitably, you’d lose entire languages and the recovering population would grow out of a reduced ‘pool’ of languages, resulting in fewer overall surviving languages.

Our workshop focus started, as many scientific endeavours do, rather serendipitously. Several years ago, Jeremy Austin noticed that devils who had died out on the mainland several thousand years ago had a very low genetic diversity, as do modern-day devils surviving in Tasmania. He thought it was odd because they should have had more on the mainland given that was their principal distribution prior to Europeans arriving. He mentioned this in passing to Steve Donnellan one day and Steve announced that he had seem the same pattern in echidnas. Now, echidnas cover most of Australia’s surface, so that was equally odd. Then they decided to look at another widespread species – tiger snakes, emus, etc. – and found in many of them, the same patterns were there. Read the rest of this entry »





Drive the future of biodiversity research

20 07 2011

My colleague, Professor Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, has a few funky PhD positions available in high-tech biodiversity applications.

We are looking for interested graduate students, who are highly motivated and enjoy independent and unusual research in the general areas below. An interest in evolution and natural history are key requirements, and a background in any of the following would be useful: evolution, genetics, molecular biology, chemistry/biochemistry and environmental science.

Environmental Genomics

New genomic approaches for biodiversity studies of environmental samples: a number of PhD positions are available in a large-scale project to apply high throughput sequencing approaches to the analysis of environmental samples and develop a new range of methods to perform biodiversity surveys, taxonomic discovery, and environmental impact reports. The project will employ multiplexed PCR, 2nd/3rd-gen sequencing, bioinformatics and Phylogenetics to develop novel systems for rapid and accurate biodiversity assessment. Key topics within the project are the analysis of natural and re-use water supplies, monitoring presence and abundance of threatened species and Australian native grasses. A strong molecular biology and/or bioinformatics background is required. The project is a AU$1M Australian Research Council-industry partnership. Read the rest of this entry »





Environmental Genomics PhD and Postdoc positions

8 08 2010

My colleague, Professor Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, asked me to advertise a couple of cool research positions that he’d like to fill by the end of this year.

Environmental Genomics: PhD and Postdoc opportunities

We are looking for interested postgraduate students who are highly motivated and enjoy independent and unusual research. An interest in environmental biodiversity is a key requirement, and a background in any of the following would be useful: molecular ecology, molecular biology, genetics, bioinformatics, chemistry/biochemistry. The project is for 3 years, and starts in early 2011.

New environmental genomics approaches for biodiversity studies of soils, water, forensics, grasses and Antarctic biota

A number of PhD positions are available in a large-scale project to apply high throughput sequencing approaches to the analysis of environmental samples and develop a new range of methods to perform biodiversity surveys, taxonomic discovery, and environmental impact reports. The project will employ multiplexed PCR, 2nd/3rd gen sequencing, bioinformatics and phylogenetics to develop novel systems for rapid and accurate biodiversity assessment. Key topics within the project are the analysis of Australian soils, natural and re-use water supplies, Australian native grasses, Antarctic biota, and forensic material. A strong molecular biology and/or bioinformatics background is required. The project is a $1M Australian Research Council-industry partnership.

1-2 postdoc positions will also be available for this project, and will carry supervisory responsibilities for the PhD projects. It is anticipated that one position will be oriented towards data generation, and another towards bioinformatics/database analysis.

International Students wishing to study at The University of Adelaide in 2011 should check the available scholarship opportunities as they provide payment of full academic fees plus an annual living allowance of approximately AUD$21,000 tax free.

Note the closing date for international scholarship enrolment 31 August 2010 or 30 October for Australian/NZ applicants.

Both the Australian Department of Immigration and University of Adelaide expect international applicants to meet English Language Proficiency (ELP) requirements. The ELP is based on high scores in IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). For further information please refer to this website and this document.

Expressions of interest from applicants with strong graduate marks, a good TOEFL score, and a background in evolution/bioinformatics/molecular biology are encouraged to apply. Please contact the following supervisors and provide your curriculum vitae:

Prof. Alan Cooper (e-mail)

Australian Centre for Ancient DNA
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
Darling Building, THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE
SA 5005, AUSTRALIA
Telephone: +61 8 8303 3952
Facsimile: +61 8 8303 4364

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