Javier Morente – Harper Prize Shortlist

Throughout April, we are featuring the articles shortlisted for the Harper Prize 2021. The Harper Prize is an annual award for the best early career research paper published in Journal of Ecology.

Javier Morente et al.’s article ‘Gene flow effects on populations inhabiting marginal areas: Origin matters‘ was one of those shortlisted for the award.

⭐️About me

Since I can remember I have always been passionate about nature, especially mountain areas. This was one of the main reasons why I studied biology and started a research career. The development of my research interests started early, before my PhD. During my masters thesis I participated in a research project with Prof. José María Iriondo and Dr. Carlos Lara Romero from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Madrid). We studied the main determinants of the distribution limits of high mountain plant species, and evaluated the capacity of these species to respond to global change, using multidisciplinary techniques such as pollination network structure conformation analysis, and spatially explicit fine-scale population genetics. After this, I worked with Dr. Ruben Milla Gutiérrez (URJC) on plant evolution under artificial selection. We developed comparative ecology experiments of cultivated plants and their wild ancestors. All of this experience enhanced my interest in evolutionary ecology and gave me a firm basis to study evolutionary processes using diverse techniques, and awakened the development of my subsequent research line.

Figure 1. (A) Mountain summits located in the Sistema Central of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), where the study was made. (B) Detail of the flowers of Silene ciliata, the study species used in this article. (C) Some of the members of the AdAptA-Lab during the field work developing plantings at 2300 meters of altitude in the mountain summits of the Sistema Central of the Iberian Peninsula. Photo credit: Javier Morente López

In 2014 I started my PhD and the development of my current research program on evolutionary ecology and evolutionary genetics, at Prof. Iriondo´s research group (www.adapta-lab.com). Since then, one of my main interests has been to study the adaptive processes of plants in response to ecological variability caused by climate change. During my PhD I developed a solid methodological and theoretical background in evolutionary biology. This enabled me to study processes that drive evolutionary change using multidisciplinary approaches, such as environmental niche modeling, landscape and population genetics, quantitative genetics, and local adaptation experiments. Some of the most rewarding experiences I had during my PhD were the three internships abroad, which gave me the opportunity to work with different researchers at CIBIO-InBio (Portugal), City College of New York (USA) and Tübingen University (Germany).

🔎About the shortlisted article

Figure 2. Diagram representing the gene flow experiment developed in this study and photo showing the pollen mediated gene flow simulated and the plantings made. Colored arrows represent the pollen-mediated gene flow treatments. MMWP: gene flow within marginal populations, MMBP: gene flow between two different marginal populations, OMBP: gene flow from optimal to marginal populations. The gridded squares represent the four blocks established in each marginal population where plantings took place. Photo and diagram credit: Javier Morente López.

Gene flow is one of the main factors influencing divergent selection and local adaptation processes, although its effects on marginal population performance and adaptation are still under discussion, and are underrepresented in the literature. An aspect even more poorly studied is the effect of gene flow between marginal populations, which can be especially beneficial because it can provide both adaptive allelic combinations originated under similar environmental conditions, and genetic variation on which selection can act.

To fill this gap and provide further insight into this subject, we tested the effects of three different types of pollen-mediated gene flow (within marginal populations, between marginal populations, and from optimal to marginal populations), on marginal populations of a Mediterranean alpine plant species. To complement the study, we also carried out a local adaptation test, by implementing reciprocal sowing experiments. This is essential because experimental studies jointly testing gene flow provenance effects and local adaptation of marginal populations are scarce, despite their importance and close relatedness (Sexton et al., 2011).

Figure 3. Diagram representing the reciprocal sowing experiment developed in this study and photos showing a Silene ciliata seedling. Each arrow represents a different seeds translocation treatment.  Gridded squares represent the experimental blocks established in each marginal and optimal population where sowings took place. As in Figure 1, red squares represent marginal areas and blue squares optimal areas. Photo and diagram credit: Javier Morente López.

Our results showed that gene flow provides greater fitness to marginal populations, by increasing genetic variation and providing favorable alleles and/or genetic combinations that are potentially adaptive in such areas. Moreover, this work supports the idea that populations inhabiting marginal areas can generate valuable adaptive genetic combinations for the species. Our results also highlight the importance of studying the genetically-based phenotypic variation inside gradients, in addition to molecular genetic diversity patterns, to properly assess the evolutionary potential of marginal populations.

With this study we stressed the importance of field experiments despite their inherent risks, and highlighted the great value of multidisciplinary approaches, in exploring evolutionary biology questions.

🏝️What’s next?

Currently, I’ve moved from studding evolutionary processes on mountains to islands. Upon completion of my PhD in 2019, I started working as a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Jairo Patiño Llorente’s research group at IPNA-CSIC (Tenerife) (www.iecoevolab.com). We’re developing extensive field works to disentangle the evolutionary processes of exotic vs. native floras from a phylogenetic and functional perspective. This position allows me to acquire skills in the application of molecular genetic technologies and next-generation biodiversity analyses, to investigate speciation mechanisms on island and ecological processes that lead non-native vascular plants to become invasive in insular environments. I’m also developing my career towards the study of adaptive processes on environmental gradients, with a strong focus on the rapid adaptive evolution of plant populations under contrasting selective pressures and species adaptive radiations. One of the things that I’m really passionate about and always working towards, is building a collaborative research network that lets me grow as a scientist, and that opens up the possibility of answering evolutionary questions useful for biodiversity conservation.

Find Javier on Twitter and ResearchGate.

Read the full list of articles shortlisted for the 2021 Harper Prize here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s