McGill Biology Research Themes


Our researchers study the remarkable and often surprising ways that life emerges, grows, and changes across a diversity of microbes, plants, and animals, including humans. We offer courses in each of these areas, highlighting the breadth and depth of expertise of our faculty. Understanding Biology helps us to understand the past, present, and future of the natural world that surrounds us, and better appreciate our own place within it.

Research Highlights


Cellular traffic jams in ataxia

A recent study from the Watt lab identified cellular traffic jams in a form of ataxia. They showed that clearance of these traffic jams is associated with the restoration of cellular function and motor coordination. Read the study online


Rab18 promotes autophagy in Arabidopsis

Hugo Zheng and his team have revealed a novel autophagy mechanism underlying how cells respond to nutrient starvation. Using a combined approach of genetics, in vivo imaging and biochemistry, they demonstrated that an Arabidopsis Rab18 GTPase tethers autophagosomes to the ER to facilitate the expansion of autophagosomes on the ER in response to nutrient starvation. Read the study online

What can piercings teach us about environmental change?

A recent study from the Barrett lab on community assembly of the human piercing microbiome proposes that piercings can be used as a model for understanding how communities recover after environmental disturbance (local sterilization) and the sudden introduction of a novel ecological niche (skin piercing). In collaboration with the local Tattoo Lounge MTL, they demonstrated that ear piercings are associated with significant ecological shifts and yield more diverse, complex, and deterministic communities. Read the study online

RNA polymerase dynamics, mRNA amounts, and cell size

In collaboration with researchers at Stanford University, the Reyes lab showed that transcription in budding yeast increases with cell size due to a feedback loop betweeen the dynamics of RNA polymerase II and mRNA stability. Using single-cell and single-molecule approaches, they characterized how the chromatin-bound fraction of RNA polymerase II scales with cell size. Read the study online

Are species living up to their thermal potentials?

A new study from the Sunday lab tested hypotheses about how temperature limits species ranges by measuring how species fill their potential thermal niches. To do this, they compared the temperatures and areas that cold-blooded animal species live in to the temperatures and areas these species could potentially live in based on their thermal tolerance limits. They find that while marine and tropical terrestrial species have ranges that are more closely limited by temperature, high-latitude species on land are absent from thermally-tolerable areas in the tropics, which is consistent with the long-standing hypothesis that biotic interactions more often limit species' warm range limits. Read the study online



Rapid monitoring for ecological persistence

A new study from the Gonzalez Lab, pubslihed in PNAS and led by postdoctoral fellow Chuliang Song (now at Princeton), showed with theory, a statistical framework, and an empirical case study, that small amounts of incomplete field data can be “scaled up” to rapidly assess the persistence of whole ecological communities. This work suggests that ecosystem health can be rapidly and repeatedly assessed using minimal resources, which could substantially improve our ability to monitor progress toward global biodiversity targets. Read the study online

The importance of genetic reference database development to advance inland water conservation

The Gregory-Eaves’ lab led an exciting collaboration involving numerous Biology students and faculty, which explored the current availability of genetic records for Canadian inland water taxa. The team analyzed the distribution of reference barcodes and whole genomes across inland water macro-organisms to identify the spatial extent of the genetic records relative to species ranges, and to determine whether biases exist in terms of conservation status or geography. Results show that insects and species at risk have been under-sampled, especially in Northern regions. The framework developed could be applied globally in the future. Read the study online

Stories of finches and plants. How new mutualistic and antagonistic interactions shape the phenotypes of a ubiquitous plant

Winer Daniel Reyes-Corral, from the Hendry Lab and collaborators have recently published a paper about the differences in morphology between island and continent populations of the plant Tribulus cistoides. In this study, Tribulus is used to understand how a ubiquitous plant, is adapting to new interactions with endemic species on islands. For example, the fruits of Tribulus serve as a food source for the world-famous Darwin’s Finches. The study used field and herbarium samples to look at the fruits and flowers morphological differences. The study found that on average the fruits from island populations are larger in size and has more variability in the number of spines. The paper also found that flower size are not that different from islands and continent. However, populations in Galapagos were significantly smaller there than on other islands and the continent. Read the study online

One pattern for different problems: camouflage changes as toads grow up!

New research from the Green lab shows that as Fowler’s toads grow, their coloration matches different parts of the background. They found that Fowler’s toad camouflage is specialized to behaviourally important microhabitats, with small juvenile toads and their small spots better matching bare sand, and larger adult toads with larger spots better matching beach debris. Taken together, as toads grow larger, background matching camouflage remains effective, but juveniles and adults use the same pattern to match different components within the heterogenous background. Read the study online.

ABCDE, A basic community dynamics experiment: Disentangling deterministic and stochastic processes in structuring ecological communities

Mark Jewell and Grama Bell present the results of a basic community dynamics experiment using floating aquatic plants, designed to measure the relative contributions of species sorting and ecological drift to community change over about a dozen generations. Read the study online.

Biodiversity has much to gain in tree planting projects

The Pollock lab (led by Honours student Olivia St-Laurent) has a new paper out in Journal of Applied Ecology addressing the questions of which species are planted in restoration projects across Australia. Using a large, newly compiled dataset, we show that the same 6 common eucalypt species are repeatedly planted across the continent despite there being over 800 species native to Australia. Intentionally selecting species would vastly benefit biodiversity. Read the study online.

An ecological rule breaker shows the effects of climate change on body size evolution

Does evolution follow certain rules? Can these rules be predicted? Southeast Asia’s tree shrews break multiple rules when it comes to body size variation – with an unexpected twist. The findings of our study remind us how little we understand about the response of species to the ongoing rapid and unprecedented climate warming. Read the study online. 

Do individual organisms always need "drivers" to disperse?

PhD candidate Nathalie Jreidini and David Green assessed the variation in movement distances explained by potential drivers of dispersal using historical data on Fowler's Toads in a variable landscape. Read the study online.

Tick-borne pathogens increasingly widespread in Central Canada

Findings from researchers at McGill University (Kirsten Crandall, joint PhD candidate, and Dr. Virginie Millien) and the University of Ottawa (Dr. Jeremy Kerr) demonstrate the need for more comprehensive testing to detect the spread and potential risk of tick-borne pathogens to human and wildlife populations throughout Canada. They discovered that two pathogens, Babesia odocoilei and Rickettsia rickettsii, were detected outside their historic geographic range in Quebec. These pathogens spread both babesiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can be transmitted to ticks in different ways such as after feeding from the blood of an infected host and directly transmitted from adult female ticks to larval ticks. Read the study online.

Exercise in a pill for rare disease treatment

The Watt lab recently published the results of a study aiming to discover new treatments for the rare disease spinocerebellar ataxia type 6 (SCA6). They identified a signalling pathway (TrkB-Akt) that is involved in SCA6 pathophysiology and successfully targeted this pathway using both exercise and drug treatment in an SCA6 mouse model. Read the study online.

No ‘Safe Space’ for 12 key ocean species on North American West Coast

New research led by McGill Biology professor Jennifer Sunday and Professor Terrie Klinger from the Washington Ocean Acidification Center within EarthLab at the University of Washington warns that climate impacts will significantly affect twelve economically and culturally important species make their home in the CCME over the next 80 years. Read the study online.

Bypassing the roadblocks to cancer

Kendall Dutchak of the Dankort Lab has uncovered a previously unknown mechanism by which tumours escape oncogenes induced senescence (OIS) and promote disease progression. Oncogenic mutations in RAS and BRAF are found in 25% of human tumors, yet expression of these mutants causes a rapid proliferation arrest (OIS) that serves as a tumor suppressor mechanism. We found MOB3A expression subverts OIS engagement allowing for continued proliferation and MOB3A functions through Hippo pathway inactivation. Moreover, inhibition of MOB3A expression in cancer cells delays tumor growth in vivo, suggesting MOB3A could be a novel therapeutic target. This was published in Molecular Cancer Research as a highlighted article.

brainMcGill researchers tackle rare disease first identified in Quebec

Autosomal recessive spastic ataxia of Charlevoix-Saguenay (ARSACS) is a genetic condition that affects coordination and balance from early childhood. Most ARSACS patients require a wheelchair by the time they reach their 30s or 40s. There is no cure and current treatments provide only limited symptomatic relief. Results published in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, the McGill research team, led by biology professor Alanna Watt and pharmacology and therapeutics professor Anne McKinney, made a surprising discovery: not all zebrin-negative cells behave the same. The new research, conducted over a 12-month period in a mouse model of ARSACS, shows that some cells are more vulnerable than others, depending on their location within the cerebellum.

Des chercheurs à l'écoute du chant des oiseaux (Québec Science, 2021)

Profs. Jon Sakata and Sarah Woolley were featured in the July issue of Quebec Science. The issue of the magazine is devoted to birds and all their glory, and the full article features tidbits about how birds learn their songs and how females pick which males to mate with. 

Protecting Diversity and Ecosystem Services

There is consensus among conservation scientists that protected areas should be expanded to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services, but it is often difficult to prioritize areas for protection. Considering factors that motivate conservation across Europe, an analysis includes the value of species, represented by distribution of >800 vertebrate species; the cultural value of landscapes, represented by activities such as nature tourism; and the value of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and flood protection. Although these three main features often do not coincide in the landscape, the authors found that a focus on biodiversity in spatial conservation planning is the most effective means of capturing a range of nature's values. Read about Dr. Laura Pollock's collaboration in this article published in Science.

Freshwater ecosystems at risk due to glyphosate use

In a recent study in PLOS ONE, researchers from 6 different countries, including Camilo Alejo and Catherine Potvin of the Department of Biology at McGill University, examined the importance of Indigenous Territories in climate change mitigation across Panama and the Amazon Basin. They found that Indigenous Territories represent effective natural solutions to meet the Paris Agreement by protecting forests and storing carbon. Given the role they play, the researchers say that Indigenous peoples should benefit from payments countries receive for avoided greenhouse emissions.

Which animals will survive climate change?

Climate change is exacerbating problems like habitat loss and temperatures swings that have already pushed many animal species to the brink. But can scientists predict which animals will be able to adapt and survive? Using genome sequencing, researchers from McGill University show that some fish, like the threespine stickleback, can adapt very rapidly to extreme seasonal changes. Their findings could help scientists forecast the evolutionary future of these populations


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