Elizabeth Mittell

Room 408, Graham Kerr Building
Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine
College of Medical, Veterinary & Life Sciences

University of Glasgow
Glasgow
G12 8QQ

Office: 0141 330 6637

Email: E.Mittell.1@research.gla.ac.uk

Research title

Food security in the omics era: the role of polyploidy, nybridtion and mating system on the ability of crops to adapt to changing environments

Research summary

Generally I am interested in the synthesis of approaches and ideas from different fields to improve understanding of evolutionary and ecological processes shaping the dynamics of natural populations. Recently, I have become particularly interested in adaptation; specifically, the importance of evolutionary change in the responses of populations/species to environmental change. Improving our ability to predict such responses is a hugely significant and challenging topic, for example, in questions relating to the conservation of the natural world and the sustainability of people within it.

Adaptation: genetics and community interactions

My PhD project will focus on how polyploidy, hybridisation, soil micro-communities and the interactions between these will affect the responses seen in crop plants (Brassica spp.) to environmental stressors, giving insights into factors potentially affecting resilience to environmental change. This is a collaborative project, both between colleges within the university and with Glasgow Botanic Gardens (http://www.glasgowbotanicgardens.com). Outreach will be an important aspect of the project, aided by experiments being carried out in a public display in the gardens.

The unification of methods and expertise from different fields will greatly enhance the power of this project and take full advantage of exciting new techniques from the ‘omics’ era. New methods for creating diversity profiles (http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/10-2402.1) and metagenomic analyses (http://userweb.eng.gla.ac.uk/umer.ijaz/) will be utilised to assess and identify any differences between the soil microbial communities that may be associated with different ploidy levels and mating systems in different environments. These results will be evaluated in light of any observed variation in fitness. Alongside standard measures of fitness (e.g. lifetime reproductive success), assessment of the quality and quantity of food products will be made (http://www.gla.ac.uk/researchinstitutes/icams/staff/billmullen/). In this way, we will obtain insights into ecological interactions, adaptation and potential impacts on our own food security.

Relationship between molecular and quantitative genetic diversity

For my Master’s project I conducted a meta-analysis to assess the relationship between heritable variation and heterozygosity, supervised by Dr. Shinichi Nakagawa (http://www.otago.ac.nz/zoology/staff/otago008929.html University of Otago) and Dr. Jarrod Hadfield (http://jarrod.bio.ed.ac.uk/jarrod.html University of Edinburgh). Conservation biology aims to prevent populations from declining to extinction, and requires tools to make assessments of these populations on which they can base management decisions. The ability of populations to adapt to change is one way they will avoid extinction, known as ‘evolutionary potential’.

Quantitative genetics allows the direct estimation of the ‘evolutionary potential’ of a population/species via estimation of the additive genetic variation underlying fitness (VW) – the heritable variation. Heterozygosity is commonly assessed using contemporary molecular markers, i.e. microsatellites and nucleotide diversity estimates. As estimates of quantitative genetic variation are laborious, time-consuming, expensive and often untenable to obtain in populations of conservation concern, molecular markers (quicker and cheaper to assay) would be a great alternative for estimating evolutionary potential.

Unfortunately, the relationship this analysis found was weak, with an upper 95% limit on the R2 = 0.26. Potentially, current heterozygosity estimates are unable to assess genome-wide diversity with any precision, weakening the relationship found with heritable variation. The question arises, how well are molecular markers performing in the assessment of genome-wide molecular diversity? The project was then expanded with collaborators to include an analytical approach addressing this. Surprisingly, for this application it was found that subsets of molecular markers are already assessing genome-wide molecular diversity effectively. Thus increasing the number of loci would not improve the relationship. It was concluded that molecular genetic diversity is unreliable for estimating a population’s evolutionary potential and other factors (e.g. demography) should be the focus of conservation efforts.

Hybridisation

For my undergraduate honour’s project I utilised microsatellite and mitochondrial genotyping to test the suspected hybridisation between red deer and Japanese sika deer in the Lake District, England. Native red deer are valued in the UK as part of the natural landscape and for trophy hunting. In addition, there are concerns (e.g. within the forestry commission) that introgression of secretive behavioural traits from sika deer could make red deer management increasingly difficult. Hybrid swarm formation has been seen in Kintyre, Scotland (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2008.04051.x/full). Genotyping was performed using 22 microsatellite markers and one mitochondrial marker. No evidence was revealed in a STRUCTURE analysis for hybridisation in this region.

Academic and Professional History

  • 2015 - present: PhD student, Lord Kelvin-Adam Smith funded, University of Glasgow
  • 2011 - 2013: MSc - Erasmus Mundus European Masters in Applied Ecology (Distinction)

Final Project: The end of the affair: neutral molecular diversity is unrelated to adaptive potential
Supervisors: Dr. Shinichi Nakagawa and Dr. Jarrod Hadfield
University of Otago and University of Edinburgh: April – August 2013

Universities attended for teaching during the masters program:
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel and GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel: October – March 2013
Universidade de Coimbra: April – June 2012
University of East Anglia: January – March 2012
Université de Poitiers: August – December 2011

  • 2005 - 2010: BSc in Biological Sciences with Zoology honours (First Class), University of Edinburgh

Final Project: Hybridisation between red deer (Cervus elephas) and Japanese sika deer (C. nippon) in the Lake District
Supervisor: Professor Josephine Pemberton

Publications

  • Mittell E. A., Nakagawa S., & Hadfield J. D. (available online) Are molecular markers useful predictors of adaptive potential?
  • Hadfield, J. D., Heap, E. A., Bayer, F., Mittell, E. A., & Crouch, N. (2013) Intraclutch differences in egg characteristics mitigate the consequences of age-related hierarchies in a wild passerine Evolution 67(9): 2688-2700
  • Hadfield, J. D., Heap, E. A., Bayer, F., Mittell, E. A., & Crouch, N. (2013) Disentangling genetic and prenatal sources of familial resemblance across ontogeny in a wild passerine Evolution 67(9): 2701-2713

Supervisors

Grants

  • 2015 - present: Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Scholarship, University of Glasgow
  • 2011 - 2013: European Scholarship from the European Commission through the program Erasmus Mundus Master Course - International Master in Applied Ecology (EMMC-IMAE) (FPA 532524-1-FR-2012-ERA MUNDUS-EMMC) – Maintenance and Tuition

Conferences

  • 2015: Population Genetics Conference, University of Sheffield, UK
  • 2014: Wild Animal Modelling, Biannual Meeting, Kindrogan Field Studies Centre, Blairgowrie, UK, presented – ‘The end of the affair: neutral molecular diversity is unrelated to adaptive potential’
  • 2014: Population Genetics Conference, University of Bath, UK, presented – ‘The end of the affair: neutral molecular diversity is unrelated to adaptive potential’
  • 2013: Farewell Congress for European Masters in Applied Ecology, Université de Poitiers, France, presented – ‘The relationship between molecular genetic diversity and adaptive potential’