Evolutionary genomics of marine invertebrates

My research takes advantage of natural biological systems and genomic methods to understand the evolutionary processes shaping genetic diversity and divergence between closely related species. I am especially interested in the evolution and genetics of range-expansions, hybridisation and speciation in non-model marine invertebrates with a strong focus on highly-dispersive invasive species and species with swarming tendencies.

As a Postdoctoral Fellow, I am working to better understand Crown-of-Thorns sea star (COTS, Acanthaster solaris) population outbreaks and their evolution in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Although COTS occur naturally on reefs throughout the GBR, populations can reach massive adult densities during cyclical outbreak events that can cause extensive damage to reef-building corals. Despite having profound negative impacts on coral ecosystems, the geographic and demographic origins of outbreaking COTS populations and possible pathways of secondary spread are still not clearly understood. For example, it remains largely unresolved whether all major outbreaks originate in the same region, or if outbreaking populations are derived from multiple and independent source populations throughout the GBR.

With a complete COTS genome published in 2017, I am combining whole-genome sequencing with evolutionary theory, comparative and population genomic methods to leverage the highest possible resolution of population genetic diversity and demographic history in Acanthaster solaris to investigate these questions. This work will also ulitise an extensive collection of contemporary samples together with historical collections that span three major outbreaks following the first documented population explosion in 1962, allowing ‘real-time’ analysis of how genetic variation has been reshaped by cyclical boom-bust population dynamics. With poorly resolved species relationships between Acanthaster species, unknown population demographic histories of divergence and gene flow and limited knowledge on the genetics of contemporary outbreaks in the GBR, this will likely be an interesting story so please stay tuned!