Department of Evolutionary Genetics: Research Focus

Understanding evolutionary diversity is an essential prerequisite for successful conservation of threatened species. We aim to understand how past conditions have shaped current mammalian diversity and how that diversity may change in the decades to come. Therefore, we are interested in basic research question such as: How to determine relevant taxonomic units for conservation? How do epigenetic modifications promote fast adaptation to environmental changes?

We study four main facets of mammalian evolutionary diversity: (I) Adaptive genetic variation, where we focus on the genetics of domestication. We aim at identifying the molecular basis underlying polymorphic traits (e.g. coat colour or particular gates in horses) and at estimating changes in selection across historical times for the different morphs. (II) Neutral genetic variation, where we investigate population-genetic, demographic and phylogeographic processes in the context of species conservation (especially in feline species). (III) Epigenetic variation, where we study how mammals react to rapid changes in their environment (e.g. temperature, changing food supply). (IV) Life-history variation, where we are interested in how physical and social environments influence fertility and survival of individuals and how changes in the latter affect other characteristics.

The mammals we study include: species of conservation interest (e.g. tiger, lynx, elephant), species of IZW long-term research projects (e.g. hyaena, cheetah, hedgehog), and species particularly rich in historical data (e.g. domestic horses, humans). We also develop methods to study the evolutionary diversity of wildlife, e.g. to monitor demographic changes in non-model species using various markers (genetic, isotopic, phenotypic).

Beyond the publication of scientific papers and our contributions to open source software (e.g. R packages IsoriX, spaMM, camtrapR), we administrate, together with five regional partners, the Berlin Center for Genomics in Biodiversity Research (BeGenDiv), a platform of service and training for genomics and bioinformatics. We also curate two large reference sample collections - our Genome resource bank ARCHE and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Biobank - allowing us to provide advisory and wildlife forensic services to governmental and non-governmental agencies. To disseminate our results to the public we use typical outlets such as our webpage, press releases, radio & TV interviews, and we have also produced a children-friendly comic book about epigenetics, already translated into five languages.