Research in the lab is conceptually and technically diverse, but as a collective we are broadly interested in understanding the diversity of insects and the plants they feed on.
We study patterns in local insect biodiversity, the macroevolution of plant traits, and everything in between. Here are a few of the 'bigger' questions that interest us…
What factors (natural and anthropogenic) influence the diversity of insects and plants?
How do antagonistic and mutualistic species interactions contribute to plant evolution?
Which phenotypic, molecular and ecological mechanisms mediate insect interactions with plants?
Our work uses multi-species comparative analyses and field studies in natural and agricultural habitats in order to understand ecological and evolutionary processes in action. We study the behaviour of insects, particularly pollinators, to understand coevolution. We are also particularly interested in the phenotypic and genomic mechanisms of plant-insect interactions, and make extensive use plant metabolomic profiling to study the origins and function of plant chemodiversity. Here are a few current research themes:
Pollination and defence in stressful environments
The extraordinary diversity of plants and insects has long been attributed to coevolutionary interactions. For example, the interactions of pollination and herbivory have likely given rise to two seemingly unrelated components of plant diversity: reproduction, exemplified by the stunning diversity in flower form and function; and defence, exemplified by the remarkable variation in volatile and non-volatile secondary metabolites.
Long studied as separate processes, our research is focussed on interactions between reproduction/pollination and defence/herbivory. We are working with species of wild tomato and potato to study these aspects of plant diversity. We also work with both wild pollinators (bumblebees) and have an in-house honeybee apiary for studying how environmental stress affects pollinator-plant interactions.
Insects in the city
We are broadly interested in the diversity of insect-plant interactions in a variety of natural and managed systems. Currently we have a several projects studying plant-pollinator and plant-herbivore interactions in urban areas, focused on understanding how stress from urbanisation (air pollution, heat, habitat degradation) directly and indirectly affects bees, moths and flies. We're hoping to use this information to help protect insects and the innumerable benefits they bring to people. This research uses a combination of classical insect biodiversity surveys, manipulative field experiments, controlled fumigation experiments, metabolomics, and eDNA (metabarcoding) analyses of plant pollen.
We have a number of new-ish collaborative projects which are focused on using our understanding of plant-insect interactions to help address the challenge of sustainable food production. Chemical ecology is a fantastic field for this, and has a long history of generating new techniques for natural insect management by revealing the intricacies of plant defence and plant-insect interactions. For example, we are currently investigating the role of plant volatiles in mediating the transmission of maize streak virus (MSV) by insect herbivores. MSV is a devastating crop disease found across sub-Saharan Africa. We work with colleagues at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda on this project, along with others at the Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food .
Adaptation under self-fertilisation
The transition from an outcrossing to a self-fertilizing mating system alters many important genetic and ecological processes, including genetic diversity, the genome-wide strength of natural selection, demography, and the ability to colonise marginal, novel environments.
However, ecological adaptation under the constraints of selfing remains relatively poorly understood. Our work in this area focuses on the repeated evolution of selfing in the predominantly outcrossing wild mustard, Arabidopsis lyrata, and in numerous species of the hyperdiverse nightshade family (Solanaceae). We are currently investigating how mating system transitions influence the evolution and ecological functions of leaf and flower chemistry.