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Survival of the Smallest 2010

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BIoDIveRsIty ReseARch 16THe UnIVeRSITY OF BRITISH COlUMBIA • OFFICe OF THe VICe PReSIDenT ReSeARCH & InTeRnATIOnAl To the untrained eye, three-spine stickleback fish may seem remarkably unremarkable. But to Prof. Dolph Schluter and his “school” of young evolutionary biologists, these tiny fish may hold the key to some of the most fundamental ques- tions on Earth and could inform fields such as biomedicine. Measuring 3–10 centimetres long, sticklebacks originated in the ocean but began populating freshwater lakes and streams following the last ice age. Over the past 15,000 years – a relatively short time span in evolutionary terms – freshwater sticklebacks have lost their bony lateral plates, or “armour,” in these new environments. While sticklebacks are common across the northern hemisphere, the highest diversity of species are right here in B.C. The glacial freshwater lakes along the coastal regions are a hotbed of speciation in motion, a sort of “it” spot for evolutionary biologists, according to Schluter, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Evolution and Ecology. “These B.C. lakes formed about 10,000 years ago, which puts an upper age limit to the freshwater sticklebacks there, making them some of the youngest species on Earth,” he says. “What’s extraordinary is that while these lakes are home to both marine and freshwater sticklebacks, they rarely cross-breed in nature despite similar physiology and living in close proximity.” This home field advantage, coupled with a world-renowned biodiversity research cluster and unique facilities, has attracted a slew of outstanding graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to the Schluter Lab. By recreating natural stickleback environments in Schluter’s CFI-funded experimental ponds and interbreeding the marine and freshwater species at the Biodiversity Research Centre, the members of the Schluter Lab are honing in on the factors – both environmental and genetic – that drive the emergence of new species. The results of the student-driven research are impressive. They’ve not only proven that environment can change mating preferences, but also that the reverse is true: a recent study by former post-doctoral fellow Luke Harmon – now a faculty member at the University of Idaho – is also showing the strong evidence of speciation impacting the environment in return. And PhD candidate Rowan Barrett recently identified a “wanderlust gene” – the first time a gene has been associated with a specific behaviour in sticklebacks. “Given the shared genetic heritage among all vertebrates, the discovery of stickleback genes associated with behaviours are sure to have profound implications in analogous research in humans,” says Matt Arnegard, a post-doctoral fellow who received funding from the US National Science Foundation to work with Schluter on the genetic links to mating behaviours. “The fundamental question we’re asking is why there are so many species on Earth and why they are so different,” says Schluter. “And along the way we’re finding intriguing answers that are leading to even more intriguing prospects of knowledge.” The UBC Experimental Ponds were funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Government and the Blusson Fund. Schluter’s research is supported by Natural Science and Research Council of Canada and the Canada Research Chairs program. surViVAL OF THe sMALLesT Photo > Jack Wolford Photo > Derek Tan


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