Five burning questions with Ehab Abouheif

"I was interested in how the environment, and the genetic background, and all this unexplored development space, is affecting our knowledge of genes — how the eco meshes with the evo and the devo."
Image by Owen Egan.

Ehab Abouheif, James McGill Professor in the Department of Biology at McGill, has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the highest distinctions in the global science community, which recognizes contributions to science and technology, scientific leadership, and extraordinary achievements across disciplines.

Professor Abouheif is widely recognized for his pioneering research on ant societies—one of the most ecologically diverse and evolutionarily successful organisms on our planet—as a model for studies in the emerging field of ecological evolutionary developmental biology, known as eco-evo-devo. 

To start, can you paint a picture of your lab at McGill? Are there ants? 

Yes! We have a phytotron, which is like a greenhouse with a ton of growth chambers, that houses hundreds of colonies of ants that I get from all around the world. We have ants from the United States, China, Thailand, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, everywhere, it’s like the United Nations of ants. Next door to this is a cutting-edge molecular biology lab and that's where the two worlds meet: we bring over the ants from the phytotron and carry out experiments on them in the lab. 

Ants are not widely considered a “model-species,” as are mice or fruit flies, in the study of biological phenomena. You have dedicated your scientific career to revealing the development and evolution of ants. Why?

Most of our knowledge of molecular biology and development is literally based on a handful of species, like the fruit fly, the mouse, the frog, the worm. These organisms do really well in the lab environment. But in order to get at how genes are working, you have to completely shut off the environment, you have to raise them in exactly the same temperature and exactly the same humidity, you have to actually weed out the genetic background. I was interested in how the environment, and the genetic background, and all this unexplored development space, is affecting our knowledge of genes how the eco meshes with the evo and the devo. And to do that, I thought, you have to work with ants. The ant is a non-model species because it doesn’t have the genetic tools. Instead, we had to start from scratch and pioneer original tools to look at how genes are being expressed in ants, how to manipulate genes. And now we can actually tell you how those genes interact with their environment. 

Have you carried out work on other non-model species besides ants?   

Yes, on water striders, the only insect that lives their whole life on the water surface. If you go to any pond in Quebec, you see them skating on the surface. My former postdoc who is working in France as a professor is doing amazing work with them and there are some big stories there too. 

You are featured in the Bicentennial Digital Time Capsule, a series of short videos in which McGill’s top researchers envision their field in twenty-five years. In your video, you said that the field of eco-evo-devo will be the “new biology” and holds the possibility to “revolutionize medicine, agriculture, and biodiversity conservation.” Can you expand on this?  

What we’re seeing is the start of institutional recognition of the importance of this field. Molecular biologists and developmental biologists have realized that they can't do developmental biology in a bubble. They realize that our environment is changing at an ever-faster pace, and we're losing biodiversity at an ever-faster pace. The groundwork that we have done, which is trying to understand the rules by which genes and environments interact during development, is a set-up to try and help us understand how organisms are going to respond. 

When you combine this into eco-evo-devo, you realize that there are ancient, developmental, genetic toolkits from sea urchins to humans. In other words, regulatory genes and signaling molecules that regulate the development of life. When the environment interacts with and activates this ancient toolkit, you’re not going to get a random response. Instead, you'll often get a predictable response to environmental perturbation. So, we realize that some of the responses to climate change and environmental stress might in fact be somewhat predictable, which people have not really fathomed before. 

Could you provide another example of a potential application that eco-evo-devo can revolutionize? 

Yes, in agriculture. For example, crops, which are having a hard time now because they have been bred to give such high productivity that they lost the ability to be stress resistant. For most people, the current approach is to try to inject genes and give that stress resistance back. Our contention is that, in fact, the stress resistance that was lost is still there in the genome, but it is hidden. By finding the right triggers, we could reactivate the stress programstheir ability to cope with stressand then harness it to make better crops. 

You started your research in 1995. From your vantage point, would you say that eco-evo-devo is still an emerging field? 

I would say that it's still emerging. The current paradigms are deeply entrenched, but things are changingnot because people have realized how cool this field is, but because people have realized that wow, species are disappearing and we need to do something about it, and the earth is heating up and we need to figure out new ideas and approaches. People who have been working within a set paradigm are saying, okay we've been working out the details of developmental programs and how this genetic toolkit is working, but maybe we should start to look at how organisms are interacting with this toolkit in the environment. This is all driven by the current climate crisis.  





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