My experimental, theoretical and applied research work all seek to understand the evolutionary ecology of conflicts by focusing on the genetic, physiological and behavioral differences between individuals. This integrative research is encompassed in five broad themes that address how genetic variation is maintained in the face of adaptation and maladaptation to the environment.
THEME 1: Conflict between females and males
Why do female and male reproductive interests diverge? Certain fitness-related alleles are beneficial to one sex, and costly to the other sex. These sexually antagonistic genes are ubiquitous across taxa, and they can contribute to the maintenance of genetic variation in populations, yet we are only beginning to understand the ecological and evolutionary consequences of them. My work has revealed field-experimental evidence of these alleles in mammals by using the bank vole (Myodes glareolus) study system. The bank vole is a common mammal found throughout Europe. It can be trapped efficiently in the field, and shares a similar genome to the mouse model. Given that I can breed the bank vole intensively in the laboratory, and much is known about its ecology and evolution, this species is an ideal study organism.
THEME 2: Neuro-genetics of reproduction
What genes impact interactions between mates and parent-offspring bonding? Reproduction involves successful mating with a partner, as well as successful birth of the offspring. In mammals, several key brain hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) play a central role in mediating mating behaviour and parent-offspring interactions. During my postdoctoral period, I have been working to elucidate the adaptive significance of several key neuropeptide receptor genes, oxytocin receptor (Oxtr) and arginine vasopressin 1a (Avpr1a) in bank voles and humans.
THEME 3: Evolutionary ecology of deception
Why do individuals deceive one another? Individuals often gain a fitness advantage by preventing accurate interpretation of information by others. This strategy can be used in reproductive interactions, in predators-prey systems, and in competition for food resources, in addition to the practice of self-deception in human populations. I have been working to understand why and how certain individuals are able to misinform others to obtain a fitness benefit. This is an exciting area for empirical and theoretical research, as this phenomenon is common to ecological and reproductive interactions, and involves several important evolutionary mechanisms such as frequency dependence, polymorphism, and coevolution. This topic is of widespread importance in the biological sciences, thus a common framework is particularly needed to link disparate research fields to better study it.
THEME 4: The impact of ageing on fitness
Why do individuals age? While physiologists and molecular biologists have gained much insight into the process of ageing, evolutionists have not achieved a satisfactory explanation for why organisms age. Aging represents an evolutionary paradox: if an individual obtains a fitness advantage by producing more offspring, why do organisms experience senescent declines in fertility and increasing mortality with age? Using an array of study systems from fruit flies (Drosophila simulans) to bank voles, my work has been focusing on understanding the adaptive significance of ageing and senescence.
THEME 5: Intra-familial conflicts in health and disease
With this research focus, I have begun to apply principles of sexual conflict theory and kinship theory to health and disease. This cross-disciplinary work has extended into the realm of psychology, where we outline how genetic and psychological differences between the sexes can explain sexually dimorphic patterns of psychiatric conditions. As other recent work has begun to uncover the potential role of sexual antagonism in diseases such as schizophrenia, as well as important physiological parameters such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol, this project has the potential to yield further insights into the impact of evolutionary conflict on human health.