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Recombining your way out of trouble: Can hybridization boost biodiversity?
We live in a world where the pace of environmental change poses a serious threat to biodiversity. Hybridization between species introduces new genetic variation and can be an important source for evolutionary adaptation, especially when habitats become stressful and unlivable.
The research in my lab at Stockholm University revolves around the question: Can hybridization boost biodiversity, and rescue species from extinction in the face of rapid environmental change? I am fascinated with hybridization because is a real paradox. On the one hand, it is full of evolutionary potential but on the other, it is risky and can cause populations serious problems (most hybrids are unfit and cannot reproduce).
In my lab, we test under which genetic and environmental conditions hybridization can still be beneficial for populations. To answer our questions, we are using Baker’s yeast – the microbe used for baking and brewing – because it is fast and flexible, and it allows us to observe evolution in the lab over hundreds of generations in a few weeks, an approach called experimental evolution. Yeast also has a very small and very well-known genome, which we can easily manipulate through genetic cloning and techniques like CRISPR-Cas9.
Our research has relevance for biodiversity conservation but also for agriculture (to improve crop and livestock), biotechnology (to improve the taste of food), and infectious disease (e.g. to predict if hybrid pathogens become more virulent).
Bild: Rike Stelkens & Alessandro Devigili, Stockholms universitet