Laboratory of Insect Symbiosis

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Our goal is to discover and understand the evolutionary processes that lead to repeated evolution of adaptations. We use termites and other insects (rove beetles, flies) living  in symbiosis with termites as our main study subjects and we focus on evolutionary processes that  shaped their defense and symbiosis. Our research starts with global field sampling and field observations and continues to wet lab and in silico. We construct molecular phylogenies and perform comparative genomics with chromosome-level assemblies and transcriptomics to infer trajectories of genome changes. We use X-ray microtomographic imaging to visualize the external and internal anatomy of insects in micrometer resolution and to infer the patterns of phenotypic evolution. We integrate the comparative phenotypic and genomic analyses to ultimately contribute to answering a largely open question in biology: how evolutionary processes traverse the vast space of theoretically possible phenotypes and why some adaptations evolve many times convergently. 


Research projects

Trajectories of genome evolution in convergently evolving insect lineages

Organisms often evolve similar adaptations to similar environments in the process of convergent evolution, indicating that the trajectory of phenotypic evolution is amenable to predictions. Whether the genomic trajectories of convergent organisms are parallel - and thus predictable in principle - is unclear due to the scarcity of genomic evidence from convergent organismal groups. To answer these questions, we are using a model system consisting of rove beetles (Staphylinidae: Aleocharinae) and scuttle flies (Phoridae) that adapted more than twenty times repeatedly to live in symbiosis with termites. Using phylogenetics, comparative genomics, transcriptomics, and microtomographic reconstructions of phenotypes, we will infer the extent, the timescale, and the hierarchical level of genome sequence evolution at which parallel patterns of genome evolution accompany the evolution of convergent adaptations.
Research in collaboration with Tom Bourguignon (OIST, Japan) and Taisuke Kanao (Yamagata University, Japan).
Funding: 5-year research grant JUNIOR STAR GAČR from the Czech Science Foundation(25M CZK  ~ 1M EUR, 2023-2027).

Termite phylogenetics

Termites with ~ 3,100 described species represent a modestly diverse group which, however, reached a global ecological impact during the estimated ~ 140 millions of years since the inferred diversification of the last common ancestor of all living termite species. To reconstruct the diversification of termite lineages we built phylogenetic hypothesis using a range of molecular genetic markers, including mitochondrial genomes, nuclear protein-coding gene orthologs, and nuclear ultra conserved elements. These backbone phylogenetic trees allowed us then to infer the shifts in symbiotic relationships within termite guts (Buček et al. 2019), or the historical biogeography of termites and their dispersal potential  (Buček et al. 2022, Wang et al. 2019, Wang et al. 2022).
Research started in the lab of Tom Bourguignon (OIST, Japan) and Jan Šobotník (CULS, Czechia).

Evolution of defense in termites

One of the likely key adaptations that led to the evolutionary success of termites is defense. While some termite workers evolved remarkable self-sacrificial chemical defensive strategies, the principal termite colony caste responsible for active defense are the soldiers. Termite soldiers typically combine their capacity to produce chemical secretions (Jirošová et al. 2017, Bourguignon et al. 2016) and mechanical weapons in the form of their mandibles (Beránková et al. 2022). One remarkable mandibular defense strategy - so called mandibular snapping - presumably evolved many times independently in termites. In this strategy, soldiers of some termite species evolved mandibles that lost the biting ability and instead adapted into springs that can deliver a lethal strike to insect competitors of termites. Remarkably, this highly derived mandibular strategy apparently evolved multiple times convergently. Currently, we are conducting a comparative evolutionary study across termite lineages to uncover the evolutionary trajectories that lead to mandibular snapping.
Research started in the labs of Tom Bourguignon (OIST, Japan) and Jan Šobotník (CULS, Czechia).

Funding: 2-year research grant KAKENHI from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (2023-2024).


Biology Centre CAS
Institute of Entomology
Branišovská 1160/31
370 05 České Budějovice

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