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On-going projects

My research project deal with the local adaptation and acclimation of forest trees, and the impact of pollination and seed dispersal by animals on gene flow.

Phenology of tropical tree species – environmental cues, molecular mechanisms, and consequences for plant-animal interactions (2021 – 2027)

In the project, we will investigate the causes and consequences of regular and synchronized phenological transitions in tropical tree species. Investigating tropical tree phenology requires an integrative approach that takes into account the monitoring of tree phenology, molecular methods to study gene expression, and ecological approaches to study plant-animal interactions.

The study will be carried out in the montane humid forests and the seasonally dry tropical forest of Southern Ecuador, at the research stations Estacíon Científica San Francísco and Estacíon Científica Laipuna. Here, available data from previous and ongoing projects (most importantly from the research unit RESPECT) and continuous measurements of important parameters such as climate and carbon flux provide an ideal basis for realizing a study on tree phenology. During this project, we will simultaneously monitor phenological transitions, changes of gene expression, stem diameter variation, optical properties of canopies in four tree species and link this to carbon fluxes and climatic parameters. Thereby, this project will provide insights on how phenological transitions are triggered, which gene regulatory networks are involved in phenological transitions, and how these influence plant growth and carbon sequestration. Further, we will study the interdependencies of trees and their mutualistic and antagonistic partners in the light of phenological transitions. First, we will investigate pollinator assemblages, pollen-mediated gene flow, seed set, and germination rates. Second, we will investigate associated herbivore assemblages and rates of herbivory over time. Overall, this project will make important contributions to future predictions of the impact of climate change on montane rainforests.

The project is funded as an Emmy Noether research group by the DFG (HE 7345/8-1).

Reassembly of interaction networks (2021 – 2025)

We will investigate a chronosequence (forest sites recovering for different time spans from a former use as pasture or plantation) to assess and compare the reassembly of interaction networks and trajectories of ecosystem processes. We will quantify the effects of functional traits that are predicted to be important for network reassembly and resilience to perturbations: response traits to environmental conditions, and interaction traits as determinants of network links.

Overall, our research unit will unravel how, to what extent, and how fast a forest ecosystem can re-establish after deforestation, including the diverse species communities, complex interaction networks, and relevant processes that characterize such forest ecosystems.

The research site is located in the Chocó lowland forest of North-West Ecuador in collaboration with Fundación Jocotoco, a private Ecuadorian conservation foundation. Sites include the Canandé Reserve and Tesoro Escondido Reserve.

Together with Nina Farwig (Marburg) and Sybille Unsicker (Jena), I will be responsible for subproject 5,  studying seedling recruitment along the chronosequence. Specifically, we focus on the dynamics of tree seedling-herbivore interactions during forest recovery.

The research unit is coordinated by Nico Blüthgen (Darmstadt) & funded by the DFG (HE 7345/11-1).

More information can be found on our project website and on Twitter.

FORGENIUS – Improving access to FORest GENetic resources Information and services for end-Users (2021 – 2025)

In this project, our European consortium with 19 partners from 12 countries will develop methods and tools to provide greater insight into the characteristics and the value of all forest-relevant collections of genetic resources presently existing in 35 European countries. The overall goal of FORGENIUS is to produce a new high-throughput quantitative assessment of conserved forest genetic resources and make it accessible to end-users by developing general standards, tools, and services for better characterization and management of the entire GCU collection.
The H2020 project is coordinated by Ivan Scotti (INRAE Avignon, France).

EpiDiverse – Linking ecology, molecular biology and bioinformatics in plant epigenetic research (2018 – 2021)

In this European Training Network (ETN), we seek to study the naturally occurring epigenetic variation in natural populations of Fragaria vesca, Thlaspi arvense, and Populus nigra.

In April 2018, Bárbara Díez Rodríguez has started her PhD with us, and have established a common garden with ~ 450 poplar cuttings in the Botanical Garden in Marburg were we will phenotype and epi-genotype the trees in the next two years.

The ETN is funded by Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Actions and coordinated by Dr. Koen Verhoeven (NIOO, Netherlands). Detailed info on the project can be found on the project website and updates on twitter @EpiDiverse and ResearchGate.

Local adaptation of Nothofagus pumilio along the latitudinal gradient of the Andes (2018 – 2022)

In this collaborative project, we aim to investigate the local adaptation of Nothofagus pumilio along extreme latitudinal, elevational, and precipitation gradients. In the next three years, we will gather genetic and dendrophenotypic data along the latitudinal gradient of the Andes, and investigate gene flow in two intensive study sites. For the exome capture design, we will use a transcriptome we assembled based on RNAseq data from a preliminary study with seedlings grown under different temperatures and day length conditions. Here, we seek to determine whether genes involved in the regulation of circadian clock are differentially expressed in N. pumilio seedlings grown under different temperature regimes.

The collaboration with the team from INTA Bariloche was funded by the DAAD and Trees4future and is currently funded by the DFG (HE 7345/6-1). Check out the project website.

Genetic resources for forest trees (ongoing)

I am a collaborator in genome sequencing projects for Abies alba coordinated by David Neale (https://www.aforgen.org/sfgp/index) and for Fagus sylvatica coordinated by Ivan Scotti (INRA).

Past projects

Vertical stratification of plant-animal interactions and their impact on pollination and seed dispersal within a single Neotropical plant species (2018 – 2021)

This study focuses on a neotropical liana species, Marcgravia longifolia, that produces flowers and fruits across all strata in the forest, and interacts with a large number of different nectarivores and frugivores. We seek to study these plant-animal interactions in detail, with a specific focus on the vertical stratification of these interactions and the consequences on dispersal, and ultimately, gene flow.

In August 2018, the first field trip started and the PhD candidate Sarina Thiel is currently collecting data on visitation rates, species assemblages, and nectar and fruit quality and quantity across the vertical gradient.

This project is carried out in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Eckhard Heymann (DPZ) and Prof. Dr. Marco Tschapka (University of Ulm), and funded by the German Research Council (DFG HE7345/5-1).

GenTree – Optimising the management and sustainable use of forest genetic resources in Europe (2016 – 2020)

The overall goal of GenTree is to provide the European forestry sector with better knowledge, methods, and tools to improve the conservation and use of adapted and genetically diverse FGR in European forests in the context of global environmental change and evolving societal demands for a diversified range of forest products.

In Marburg, we were involved in sampling of F. sylvatica, A. alba, P. abies and P. nigra, and in the development of the phenotyping protocols. Further, we participate in a germination trial that tests the quantitative genetics of early fitness traits in Pinus sylvestris and Betula pendula. At a later stage, we will analyze exome capture data of F. sylvatica and Q. robur. In collaboration with researchers from the WSL, we also work on the integration of phenotypes derived from dendrocores in phenotype-genotype association studies. GenTree is funded under the EU H2020 program. For more information on the project, please have a look at the website and on twitter @GenTree.

Metabarcoding of fecal samples of flying foxes from Mt. Kilimanjaro (2017 – 2018)

In collaboration with Dr. Marco Tschapka and Anna Vogeler (both University of Ulm), we use a metabarcoding approach to determine which plant species have been eaten by flying foxes that were captured across a land-use gradient on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Analysis of data is still ongoing, and will be published in 2021.

Effect of primate seed dispersal on spatial genetic structure of a neotropical tree species (2015 – 2017)

In this study, we investigate the effects of primate seed dispersal on the spatial genetic structure of the neotropical understorey tree species Leonia cymosa. The study is conducted in collaboration with Prof. Eckhard Heymann and Dr. Tiziana Gelmi (both DPZ) and funded by the German Research Council (DFG HE7345/2).

Do long-lived conifers react to environmental stress by somatic epigenetic priming? (2014 – 2017)

In this project, we aimed to investigate whether changes in climatic conditions lead to changes in the methylation of genes. Therefore, we studied methylation in clones of Norway spruce by means of exome capture and bisulfite sequencing. This project was funded by the German Research Council (DFG HE7345/2-1).

TipTree – Scenarios for forest biodiversity dynamics under global change: Identifying micro-evolutionary scale tipping points driven by tree adaptive potential (2013 – 2016)

In this project, I was employed as a Postdoctoral researcher and we investigated the response of tree species to changing climatic conditions with a special focus on local adaptation. We currently analyze data to identify adequate candidate genes that vary along environmental gradients and test whether younger cohorts differ genetically from the cohort of their parental trees at these candidate loci with the goal of determining whether recent climatic changes already provoked shifts in allele frequency at adaptive genes. Further, we studied the genetic basis of dendrophenotypes that provide information on the response of individual trees towards environmental conditions (e.g. the reaction of silver fir towards SO2 pollution in the 70s and 80s, see publications). Further, we focus on gene flow and reproductive success in the investigated populations. We closely collaborate with Martin Lascoux and Martin Källman (University of Uppsala), Bruno Fady (INRA Avignon), and Giovanni Vendramin and Andrea Piotti (Italian National Research Council). The project was funded by ERA-NET BiodivERsA and the BMBF.

Prof. Dr. Katrin Heer
+49 761 203 3647