Center for Computational and Theoretical Biology


Molecular Biodiversity Research

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Our research projects focus on a combination of field ecology with bioinformatics and new sequencing technologies. Conceptually, we are interested in patterns and structuring forces of communities, where organisms are not easily identifiable or distinguishable from each other. This interest applies to various levels, starting with abundance and diversity of taxa, over phylogenetic reconstructions, towards environmental and spatial influences and lastly regarding organisms' molecular interactions with each other on a genomic level. Methodologically, the workgroup is developing computational workflows and databases as well as laboratory protocols to analyse ecological samples with next-generation sequencing technologies. 

Biologically, the focus of current projects is the dynamics of bacteria-host associations in changing environments. Regarding this, we currently consider changes in microbiota induced by 

  • symbiotic host-host interactions,
  • the host's development,
  • geographic intra-specific variability,
  • climatic changes,
  • prey capturing,
  • as well as general variation between tissues and species of hosts. 

To answer these questions, we conduct field work, analyse samples in our molecular laboratory and apply computational approaches. We have successfully developed methods to simultaneously assess biodiversity of bacteria and plants (here: mixed pollen samples) through next-generation sequencing allowing a very fine scaled interpretation of plant-bee-microbe interactions. Usually we start with descriptive studies, investigating the status-quo, which are followed by experimental designs manipulating the associations by (e.g. antibiotic) exclusion and bioassays. Lastly, for prospective bacteria with interesting distributions and activity, we are also engaged into genomics, studying the genetic possibilities that bacteria bring into the associations with their respective hosts.

  • The Plant-Pollinator-Microbe Triangle

    Despite the major ecological and agricultural importance of plant-pollinator associations, the microbiota of the anthosphere and of wild pollinators are not well understood. I started to work on this line of research during the final phase of my doctoral studies with first floral microbiome assessments, and now supplement this as a young investigator groupleader with the bee-microbiota association perspective. I adress fundamental questions about diversity and community structure, but also aim to understand the ecological functions and the molecular mechanisms.

  • Carnivorous Plants: Co-Evolution of Traps and Microbiota

    Carnivorous plants are marvelous research objects and have been studied for over a century. In most cases they grow in nutrient-depleted, acidic soils with centres of diversity in the tropics. They derive nutrients usually from arthropod prey, which they catch and digest with adapted morphological capturing-structures, and likely with microbial help. Surprisingly little is however known about such associations with microorganisms.

  • Eco-Evo Molecular Tool Development

    Biodiversity research on a molecular level has reached a new height with the advent of affordable sequencing methods, especially with next-generation devices. Sequencing data provides information about the evolutionary history, allows identification of all organisms within a community through meta-barcoding and uncovers not only species but also genetic diversity through genomics. Furthermore, such data is of high taxonomic resolution, independent of previous knowledge of taxa, well-comparable between workgroups, long-term achievable and re-usable in meta-analyses. Yet, currently molecular and bioinformatic tools are missing to generate and process such data in the ecological context. We thus engage into the method development of tool in this area.