On the last page of The Origin of Species, Darwin writes that there is grandeur in the view that all of life had a single beginning from which evolved endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful. In the over 150 years that passed, biology has made tremendous progress understanding the pathways and molecular processes behind the diversification of the life forms, and evolution’s fundamental genetic mechanisms that Darwin was unaware of became firmly established via the Neodarwinian synthesis in the first half of the 20th century. The second half of the 20th century added all aspects of social evolution to the Neodarwinian synthesis after W.D. Hamilton developed inclusive fitness theory in the 1960s and 1970s.
In spite of these major developments we continue to know very little about the fundamental molecular processes that produce adapted phenotypes in response to variation in the physical and social environment of organisms. The next generation sequencing revolution that I helped to shape during my years at BGI-Shenzhen have demonstrated this very clearly in that we are now generating reference genomes at a higher rate that we can study how these blueprints translate in responses to natural selection, the adaptations arising from these responses, and the ultimate diversification and speciation processes that may or may not follow.
With a group at BGI and recently as Assistant Professor in the Section for Ecology and Evolution of the Department of Biology in Copenhagen, I have developed and applied comparative genomic tools on high throughput ‘-omics’ data to address the classical questions of diversification, adaptation and speciation across a broad spectrum of organisms. In the past nine years, I have led several big international genomic initiations, the latest one being the Avian Phylogenomics Project, the results of which have been published in a special issue of the journal Science on 12th December 2014, which includes eight papers on bird genomics, and 18 accompanying papers in other journals. I have prominent authorships on four of the Science papers and 10 of the remaining publications. Before embarking on this bird work I singled out the eusocial animals as my future research focus in my Copenhagen group, and have initiated several comparative genomics and functional genomics projects on eusocial species.
There are three main research themes in my current group. The first one is the phylogenomics, which aims to use full genome data to resolve the fundamental tree of life question. Based on the first themes, my group also uses comparative genomic tools to understand the molecular mechanisms of animal evolution and adaptation. The third theme focuses on the behavior genetics using eusocial insects as model.
- Phylogenomics and tree of life
- Genome evolution and animal adaptation
- Behavioral genomics