Ecology, evolution and robustness of microbe-host interaction networks
Ecological network studies systematically ignore a fundamental component of the picture: microorganisms, in particular prokaryotes -Bacteria and Archaea- and their associations with larger organisms. We know they are probably more diverse than any other organisms, they exist in enormous numbers, and they regulate most ecosystem functions. Of special importance are those widespread associations between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, with symbioses postulated as one of the driving forces in the diversification of different animal groups, often resulting on cospeciation and codiversification. Thanks to new sequencing techniques that overcome the need for cultivation in the laboratory to identify microbes in nature much progress has happened in this research area.
Sponges and corals and their associated microbiota are ideal study systems, with an enormous diversity and complexity of their associated bacterial and archaeal assemblages that is unparalleled in an invertebrate host. In addition, sponges and corals and their associated ecosystem functions (e.g. nutrient cycling) are very sensitive to climatic warming with their associated microbes likely to change under environmental stress.
We are incorporating microbes into ecological network studies and introducing a network perspective into prokaryote-eukaryote interactions. We are bringing new technological potential from molecular biology (next generation sequencing techniques) to understand the ecology, evolution and robustness to environmental change of prokaryote-animal multispecies interaction networks. We are building the network of interactions between numerous sponge and coral species and their associated prokaryotes (Bacteria and Archaea), with an especial emphasis on identifying those associations likely to be symbiotic. We investigate how these complex networks of interactions have evolved and are maintained, and whether coevolution has played an important role in shaping current ecologies. We are trying to gain predictive power on the effects of climatic warming on the structure of these networks and on the ecosystem functions they provide. In parallel, we are developing a new generation of individual-based eco-evolutionary models to understand the emergence of these fascinating symbiotic interaction networks.
I collaborate with several benthic ecologists (Marta Ribes, Rafel Coma, from CSIC), microbial ecologists and evolutionary biologists, including Mike Taylor (University of Auckland), Ute Hentschel (University of Würzburg), and Susanne Schmmitt (University of Munich).