Interview with the authors: Strong divergent selection at multiple loci in two closely related species of ragworts adapted to high and low elevations on Mount Etna

Non-model organisms provide an interesting avenue to explore evolution in real time in natural populations.Here, we speak to Edgar Wong of Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, UK about his Molecular Ecology article, which investigated speciation in two closely related Senecio species, S. aethnensis and S. chrysanthemifolius, which grow at high and low elevations, respectively, on Mount Etna, Sicily and form a hybrid zone at intermediate elevations.  Wong and his co-authors found an extremely strong selection (up to 0.78) against hybrids in the system. This estimate is one of the highest reported in literature, and much higher than the one reported in the same system in the past. Read on to get a behind-the-scenes view of this study.

1. What led to your interest in this topic / what was the motivation for this study?

Speciation and hybridisation have always been interesting topics to me. In the case of Senecio on Mount Etna, they have an especially fascinating story: first, Mount Etna is a relatively young mountain (less than half a million years old), and previous research hypothesized that the formation of the mountain led to the divergence of the two species, Senecio aethnensis and S. chrysanthemifolius. These species are thought to be a rare example of clear-cut, recent speciation subject to divergent selection – the formation of new species driven by adaptation to distinct conditions – high- and low-elevations in our study. Second, botanists around 300 years ago brought some live Senecio specimens of the plants from Mount Etna back to the UK, and led to hybrid speciation of S. squalidus that has since spread all over the UK (although crossing experiments using plants from Mount Etna suggested hybrid breakdown). A lot is still unknown about the plants both on Mount Etna and in the UK. Hence, I was intrigued to find out unknown aspects in the system and focused on the species on Mount Etna.

2. What difficulties did you run into along the way?

One big difficulty was that Asteraceae (which Senecio belongs to) is notorious for being hard to extract clean DNA. It was a struggle to extract good-quality DNA for this study, which was resolved in the end. Also, we only had a draft genome for the hybrid species, S. squalidus, which limited the scope of analyses we could carry out. Luckily, we managed to find some interesting, highly differentiated genes that might be underlying speciation and adaptation.

3. What is the biggest or most surprising innovation highlighted in this study?

The most surprising finding in our study is that we estimated an extremely strong selection (up to 0.78) against hybrids in the system. This estimate is one of the highest reported in literature, and much higher than the one reported in the same system in the past. Such strong selection was surprising to us because hybrids between the two species are (apparently) happily growing at intermediate elevations between the typical habitats of ‘pure’ S. aethnensis and S. chrysanthemifolius. We think this strong cumulative selection on multiple loci works together with intrinsic incompatibility to maintain the phenotypic and genotypic divergence between the two target species.

4. Moving forward, what are the next steps in this area of research?

In the future, we hope to identify the environmental and ecological selective forces that had shaped this system. We also hope to characterise the genetic aspect of the species by improving the genome assembly and study more in detail the intrinsic incompatibility between the two target species (such as hybrid breakdown). With more data on both extrinsic and intrinsic processes, we can integrate these findings to get a more comprehensive picture of reproduction isolation in this system.

5. What would your message be for students about to start developing or using novel techniques in Molecular Ecology?

I would say to spend enough time understanding the experimental techniques and different types of data analyses (and the theories behind them). Most importantly, make sure that the type of data you generate are suitable for answering your research questions. As a graduate student myself, I would also suggest not to rush your work and not get transfixed on certain issues/ problems along the way – taking a step back and asking for advice and opinions from other researchers are always helpful in getting another perspective, which often helps to find a solution.

6. What have you learned about methods and resources development over the course of this project?

The type of data I used and subsequent data analyses were all new to me when I started the project, so there is no doubt I learnt a great deal about handling new types of data and how to analyse it. Another thing I have learnt is that there are always newer or ‘better’ technologies and methods that give you more data and/ or data with higher accuracy. It is inevitable that sometimes you would be worried whether what you have is not good enough. However, I have come to realise that more isn’t always better and there will always be more advanced methods; the most important thing is to use what you have and try to answer your research questions.

7. Describe the significance of this research for the general scientific community in one sentence.

Non-model organisms inform us a lot about evolutionary processes such as hybridisation, adaptation and speciation.

8. Describe the significance of this research for your scientific community in one sentence.

Strong multifarious selection could be crucial in maintaining species divergence despite on-going gene flow.

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