The long-term goal of our research is to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying adaptive traits. The group of Markus Schmid is using an array of approaches, from whole-genome studies to cell biology, to dissect the genetic networks controlling flowering, a quintessential adaptive trait. There is some overlap with Detlef Weigel’s group, which studies microRNAs (miRNAs) that affect plant development as well as mechanisms of miRNA biogenesis and specificity.
The majority of the Weigel group investigates genetic diversity, which is being studied on several different levels. In addition to forward genetic analyses of wild Arabidopsis thaliana
strains, we are examining sequence variation and its impact on a spectrum of phenotypes, including hybrid performance, on a whole-genome, whole-species scale. Such studies benefit tremendously from knowledge about the genomes of other species, and we have taken the lead in assembling genome sequences for several A. thaliana
relatives. Finally, to extend findings in plants to animals, Christine Dreyer has been developing genetic and genomic resources for the guppy, Poecilia reticulata
, a classical model of ecological genetics.
The questions that we address in our program on genetic diversity related to the three major issues in evolution: How, and how frequently, do new variants arise in the genome? Why do some of these variants increase in frequency? And why do certain combinations of new variants cause genetic incompatibilities? These questions reflect the three key evolutionary processes of mutation, selection and speciation.
As one example of our work, we have recently discovered a gene that is responsible for a major fitness trade off between plant size and pathogen response. In addition, we have established autoimmunity as the cause for a recurring type of hybrid weakness in plants, and are studying this phenomenon as a model for genetic incompatibilities that lead to speciation. In all of these areas, second-generation sequencing is playing a major role. The department has been at the forefront of developing bioinformatic methods for the analysis of Illumina data, and has been using these for a range of applications, from sequencing A. thaliana
strains to mapping of transcription factor binding sites and one-step mutation identification.
The exploding amount of whole-genome information requires radically new ways of mining such data, which is the mission of Karsten Borgwardt in the department, whose group is co-sponsored by the Department of Empirical Inference at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (Director: Bernhard Schölkopf).