Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Australasian Systematic Botany Society Conference 2015, second day

Writing about the second day of the ASBS Conference 2015 I should first mention that I should now really be considered biased because I chaired the morning session and gave my own talk in the afternoon.

The day started with the session on Genomic Data in Plant Systematics. In his keynote Craig Moritz, the director of the ANU/CSIRO Centre for Biodiversity Analysis, set the scene by providing an overview of next generation molecular and analytic methodologies and their use cases. He also discussed the new possibilities arising in what he called a post-phylogenetic world - not in the sense of 'evolutionary' systematists of course, but in the sense of having achieved more or less complete taxonomic description and the availability of decent backbone phylogenies for at least some taxonomic groups. In particular, he mentioned the integration of population genetics and phylogenetics, the study of speciation mechanisms, and cryptic diversity.

Next, Todd McLay presented results form his research on species delimitation and phylogenetics of the grass tree genus Xanthorrhoea. I was particularly intrigued by a new PCR based reduced representation library preparation method that he developed, because it seemed to be comparatively simple and thus perhaps feasible even in shorter student projects. Benjamin Anderson then gave a very concise talk on this work in the arid zone grass Triodia.

After the morning tea break we continued the genomics session first with Ed Biffin's talk on the sea grass Halodule. I was interested to learn that sea grasses are actually polyphyletic, having arisen out of the same order of monocots three or so times. James Clugston presented his plans for establishing genomic data to characterise the wild and ex situ diversity of cycads. Rachael Fowler, who is using genome skimming to study the evolution of the iconic Australian shrub genus Eremophila, showed preliminary results from the first eight chloroplast genomes she has assembled so far.

Perhaps the most technical talk was contributed by Bo-Kyung Choi who used available genomic resources and shotgun sequencing to develop useful sequence capture markers in Myrtaceae. All these talks showed a remarkable diversity of molecular methods used across various plant groups, but the session ended on an even more variant note when Marlien van der Merwe demonstrated the use of genomic data for inferring the time of community assembly of rain forests. I must admit, however, that I could not quite follow the logic of the approach, probably simply because I do not come from a community ecology perspective.

The Phylogenetics session after the lunch break was chaired by Nathalie Nagalingum. Juliet Wege showed an improved phylogeny of the trigger plant genus Stylidium and new pollinator observations. The deepest phylogenetic questions of the conference were addressed by Endymion Cooper, for example the relationships between vascular plants and bryophytes. He illustrated several of the problems plaguing very deep phylogenetic analyses such as signal saturation or model violation.

Cecile Gueidan tackled a group of lichens that is fairly intractable to molecular phylogenetic analysis because of quickly degrading DNA, and demonstrated the use of FTA cards to conserve the DNA between remote field work and lab work back home. Tanya Scharaschkin presented preliminary results from her work on the interestingly named Rottboelliinae tribe of grasses.

Among the session's speakers Katharina Schulte was clearly the most confident in having obtained final, well supported and satisfying results. Her study of the Dendrobium alliance (Orchidaceae) resolved many taxonomic uncertainties and biogeographic questions.

The second afternoon session (also on phylogenetics in the broadest sense) was chaired by Jen Taylor. After my own talk, which I am just going to skip over, Janet Gagul showed an updated phylogeny of Elaeocarpus including much broader sampling of New Guinean species. In my eyes this genus is  particularly remarkable for its strikingly blue drupes, and I was interested to learn that the heavily ornamented stones inside the fruits find use as prayer beads.

Xenia Weber then talked about the taxonomic recircumscription of Leucochrysum and Waitzia. Several colleagues said they were particularly impressed by her talk as this was 'only' a semester project that she did in her third year of university, before even starting honours; presenting students at the conference are usually postgrads.

I was also very interested in Charles Foster's talk because I am very fond of his study group Pimelea. He re-analysed previously published data in a more rigorous way to improve phylogenetic resolution but had to conclude that more sequence data are still needed. Finally, Lalita Simpson gave what could well have been two talks rolled into one. The first half discussed the potential disappearance of Australian tropical mountain endemic species under current climate trends, while the second half was an ancestral area reconstruction to infer the biogeographic history of some of those endemics.

Chaired by Kevin Thiele, the last session of the day dealt with the future of plant systematics in Australasia. Ilse Breitwieser summarised the results of a recent review of natural history collection research in New Zealand. A particularly interesting result was that the local scientists have got very little time to do actual taxonomic research compared to their colleagues e.g. in Canada. Michelle Waycott then opened general discussion.

In the evening we had a very nice conference dinner. (And I include the food in this assessment, in marked contrast to the last formal conference dinner I participated in. In that case, the potatoes and vegetables component of the rather pricey meal was completely hidden under a rather small piece of chicken. Quite apart form quality, the ratio just seemed kind of off there...)

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