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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Guillaume Dury

Dury 400x400

Guillaume Dury is one of our 2022 Stengl-Wyer Scholars who will be working in the lab of Dr. Brian Sedio. As part of the Stengl Wyer Endowment, the Stengl Wyer Postdoctoral Scholars Program provides up to three years of independent support for talented postdoctoral researchers in the broad area of the diversity of life and/or organisms in their natural environments.

Guillaume graciously gave time for an interview on his background and fascinating current work.

Tell us where you came from before becoming a Stengl-Wyer Scholar, and what you studied then?

I just completed my Ph.D. at Indiana University Bloomington with my co-advisors Dr. Michael Wade and Dr. Jennifer Lau. I studied the evolutionary consequences of parental effects using a combination of systems: mouse cress, dung beetles, and population genetic modelling. Parents of many animal and plant species can tailor their offspring to specific environments, and I find that to be fascinating! Before that, I got a master’s degree at McGill University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where my work combined molecular phylogenetics and natural history observations of leaf beetles (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Chrysomelinae). In documenting the host plants of these specialized beetles, I found that the phylogeny of the herbivores did not match the phylogeny of their host plants. The lack of congruence between the phylogenies of leaf beetles and their host plants points towards plant chemistry being more important in determining host associations of leaf beetles than coevolution. Since then, I have been curious to study the evolutionary consequences of plant defenses.

Guillaume Alps
 Young Guillaume in the Swiss Alps with butterfly net.

How would you describe your research broadly?

At the broadest scale, I’m an evolutionary biologist interested in interactions. These include interactions between herbivores and their hosts, parents and their offspring, and organisms and their environment. In my research on these many interactions, I’ve used a combination of laboratory experiments, field experiments and theoretical modelling. I also really enjoy natural history and I keep it in mind to highlight interesting questions and inform my research. In terms of organisms, I am particularly drawn to plants and insects, in part because they’re both always present around us!

What got you interested in studying neotropical leaf beetles?

I have been fascinated with insects since I was a very small child. By the age of five, I had started to learn scientific names—Extatosoma tiaratum, a stick insect from Australia was likely the first I learned—and I spent much of my childhood visiting the Montreal Insectarium. Wanting to understand insects better led me to pursue degrees in evolutionary biology. Leaf beetles were particularly interesting to me because of the diversity of behaviors of young larvae and their mothers across the many species. Some larvae form defensive circles—much like a circle-the-wagons formation—at rest to protect themselves against predators, and several species have maternal care, which is relatively rare in insects. Leaf beetles also have fascinating associations with their host plants; they are highly specialized herbivores that often feed on only one or a few species of plants. Being so specialized means leaf beetles can overcome the chemical defenses of their host plants and often repurpose the defensive chemicals of the plants for their own defenses.

Leaf beetle Platyphora opima web
 Leaf beetle (Platyphora opima)

Where do you see your research agenda heading here at UT?

Explaining why certain lineages of organisms split into more species—or diversify—more than other lineages is one of biology’s key questions. In the tropics, where species are especially numerous and diverse, some groups of closely related species called genera contain many more species than others. Understanding what causes plants to diversify is particularly important because plants directly or indirectly feed most other species. One hypothesis for why some plant genera are so species-rich is that they have innovative chemical defenses, which allowed their ancestors to escape predators (i.e., herbivores and pathogens) thereby becoming more successful than other plant genera. This success then allowed them to split into more species than closely related genera without the chemical defense innovations. Here at UT, I’m joining the laboratory group of Dr. Brian Sedio, who is an expert in broad-scale metabolomics. From him I will learn to and describe the chemical defenses of multiple hyper-diverse tropical tree genera and their less-diverse close relatives. Then, my plan is to test the chemical defense innovation hypothesis by finding the genetic signatures of those key innovations in defensive chemistry and testing whether they do, in fact, accompany increased diversity.

Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research? 

My research at UT will focus on tropical trees, but being so far south in the United States, Texas and especially southern Texas is the northern edge of distribution of several tropical trees. At the same time, Texas also includes many North American species which could be useful as a comparison. Personally, there are many species I’m excited to encounter. For example, because I read about them during my master’s, I’m excited to find leaf beetle species that are close relatives of the Colorado potato beetle (genus Leptinotarsa).

Diving Deep into Microbes
The Woods of 214

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