Two major goals of 21st century biology are to understand how genomes produce functioning organisms and link specific genetic differences to physiology, performance, and fitness. While the first goal can be addressed by studying model organisms in the laboratory, the second goal requires biologists to study complex, ecologically-important traits in natural populations. In particular, linking genotype to phenotype, performance, and fitness will require integrative research that tests the impacts of ecologically-important genetic variation at multiple levels of biological organization (see Dalziel et al. 2009 for my 2 cents on this).
The goal of our research is to determine the mechanisms by which animals cope with changes in their environment. Two major questions we ask are: 1) Do the mechanisms contributing to local adaptation match those that lead to acclimation to environmental stressors within a lifetime? 2) Does local adaptation often occur by similar mechanisms among populations and species? If so, what are the possible genetic and functional constraints or facilitations leading to parallel evolution? We use a comparative approach to address these questions and study the genetic, molecular, biochemical and physiological mechanisms leading to differences in salinity tolerance and swimming capacity among populations and species of fishes. Current projects focus on understanding how increased freshwater tolerance evolves among species and populations of stickleback fishes (Gasterosteidae) and how upper salinity tolerance evolves in killifish (Fundulidae). Future work aims to understand the role of epigenetic regulation of gene expression in the evolution of these physiological performance traits.
We also conduct a number of collaborative projects with Dr. Laura Weir’s lab. We are currently studying mating coloration, behavior and physiology in the White Stickleback, an ecotype of Threespine Stickleback endemic to Nova Scotia. In my lab, we are trying to understand the mechanisms leading to the bright white male nuptial coloration that this fish is named for. We are also working together to understand why wild Banded (Fundulus diaphanus) x Common (F. heteroclitus) Killifish asexual F1 hybrids almost always result from a Banded Killifish mother and a Common Killifish father. In particular, we are testing if mate choice and intrinsic genetic incompatibilities may lead to this bias in cross direction.