Wertheim lab - Evolutionary Biology of Ecological Interactions



Our common aim is to reveal how the genome functions in generating complex organisms that can interact with their environment, how the genome evolves, and how it can enable both adaptation and flexibility when the world changes. In addition to our fundamental research, I strive for societal impact through applied research, including effective pest management strategies against the invasive Drosophila suzukii, and the development of insects as sustainable feed.

1) The adaptable genome

A large part of the genome has evolved to deal with the ecological interactions of an organism with its environment. Most of the traits or processes that have evolved for these interactions are complex, with many genes involved, and often the ability to respond to variation in the environmental conditions. For the analysis of such a complex genetic architecture of traits and processes, the genomic toolbox is required. These tools allows us to trace the impact of the ecological interactions on the evolution of the genome. We aim to elucidate the genomic variation and genetic networks underlying the evolution of complex traits in ecological interactions, using a combination of experimentation, genomic approaches and bioinformatics.

We study the evolutionary genomics of ecological interactions in Drosophila fruitflies, where we can combine our extensive understanding of their ecology with the formidable molecular toolbox and knowledge on mechanistic processes for various life history traits. Also in several other organisms, we investigate the complex genetic architecture of adaptive traits, and how they evolve. To investigate the changes in the genome that occur during evolution, we study host-parasite co-evolution, competitive turf wars for food, sexual conflicts, the impact of abiotic factors (e.g. temperature, light), as well as the complex interactions with the microbiome.

2) IPM strategies for the invasive Drosophila suzukii

The Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD), Drosophila suzukii, is an invasive fruit fly from Asia that infests ripening fruit. It is rapidly spreading north in Europe and already causes millions of euros of damage in the fruit industry. We can capitalize on our extensive expertise in Drosophila chemical ecology, insect reproduction, insect evolutionary genetics, and interactions with parasitoids and pathogens, and aim to develop innovative and locally attuned approaches for the management of this invasive pest. 

3) Insects as sustainable feed for a circular economy

With the expected growth of the human population, an increase in global food production of at least 60 percent above 2006 levels is projected. However, the food system is a major driver of climate change, so that reductions in food loss and waste are required as well. Current feed production for livestock competes with food production for humans (e.g. cereals and soymeal) or relies on resources that threaten biodiversity (e.g. overfishing for fishmeal). For a novel circular and sustainable approach to feed production, insects provide excellent opportunities because various species can be reared on organic residual streams. In recent years, insect production for feed has been initiated (e.g., for aquaculture) and this industry is expected to grow rapidly in the near future, considering that insects are expected to soon be allowed as feed for pigs and poultry.

The InsectFeed project aims to (1) investigate insect production, especially focussing on insect health, insect welfare and the intrinsic value of insects, (2) investigate health and welfare of livestock that is fed with insects and (3) conduct an economic analysis of the value chain development, i.e., the development of an integrated set of activities to deliver a valuable product. To achieve our aim, an interdisciplinary research approach (ethics, economics, biology), and the involvement of a various stakeholders is developed.

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