Who was going to say that a complex world hides in the feathers of birds? “And to think that this is a minimum part of what is in a sparrow!” This commented Jorge Doña, a promising predoctoral researcher at the Doñana Biological Station, when we asked him, fascinated, by his work.
Evolution can hide its secrets inside the wings of the birds . And the role of researchers like Jorge is to unravel them, paving the way to knowledge. A few months ago, Doña received an award in the Young Prize for Scientific Culture for an interesting work on symbionts and their coevolution. From Xataka we wanted to know him to understand what motivates a young researcher to continue working the future of science, day by day.
Deep in a feather
Mites are small arachnids that live where you least expect them. If we could make a fantastic trip inside the plumage of a bird, the first thing we would see would be that the feathers, in fact, are divided thousands of times in “beards”, which are elongated structures that, in turn, are divided into barbules, forming a network that branches off.
In this tiny forest formed by a feather, mites find their home, a perfect place to create their own ecosystem. In this tiny world, these symbiotes make their own beneficial role for the bird they inhabit. “When you look at a sparrow,” the researcher explains, “think about everything that has happened to make this species so, at this particular moment, for example, think about all the species that you have interacted with during this time.”
Mites, distant cousins of spiders, have been specializing for millions of years to live in such a landscape. It is what is known as ectosimbionte relationship, where “ecto” refers to being located outside the body of the host, which would be the bird. Symbiote is how we know an organism that coexists and relates to another. In the case of bird mites, these can be parasites and take advantage of their unintended host.
But we can also find others that help the bird. “If you look only at the ectosymbiotic mites, you can find different mites specialized in living in the flight feathers, inside the rachis (which is the main” mast “of the pen), the body, the head, the respiratory tract, etc. If we go deeper into these symbionts, we can see that this process of speciation is the result of many independent stories with many interactions, for example, mites that have been competing for a long time, or being depraved, or helping each other.
Little by little, Jorge is taking us to his real estate, showing what pasta is made of. Because this researcher is a true explorer of evolution . His work, as we said, is to reveal a little more of the secrets of this phenomenon of life. And mites, we might say, are just an excuse to focus their efforts on coevolution and codification. Coevolution tells us how species evolve thanks to or because of others with whom they live.
From small mites to one of the great engines of evolution
“The mites are there temporarily, for example, they can go, or not, to another animal species and be lucky to be able to settle there, changing the scenario and some of the circumstances.” Among these circumstances are the density of the plumage, the temperature to which they are subjected, the presence of other arthropods or the health conditions of the bird itself, among many others.
“This could cause them [mites] to change, that is, to form new species as a result of the change.” This process is known as speciation (by host jump). Speciation can occur when a species is isolated in another environment and, over the years (many, many years), ends up becoming a completely different species than the one that started. Coevolution can also influence, as Jorge explains, the speciation we are talking about. Understanding how this process works is essential to understanding “how life works”.
“Analyze these processes, at this scale, is very complicated,” says the expert. “From knowing if the sparrow eats with the pigeons in some parts of the world, to how many phylogenetically similar species there are in a particular place is important to explain them.”
“Perhaps the most important thing in my work is to see organisms as dynamic interacting agents and not as stable isolated units.” When we think of animals, insects, plants… we usually perceive individuals alone, of a specific species, but, as happens when we look at the sparrow, we are not only seeing a bird. We are also observing, unknowingly, a world hidden in its plumage, full of life.
“And we can continue because there are many more scales, for example, these mites can carry pathogenic bacteria that can pass to the lice of birds, and could even transmit these bacteria to the bird, etc.,” he says. “This is a more integrative vision, even more enriching if we try to understand the evolutionary history behind it, and to think that this is a tiny part of what is in a sparrow! In short, everything is fascinating, very dynamic and complex and we still know very little.”
As we said, coevolution is one of the great engines of change. This amalgam of relationships is behind many of the species that we know today. Living beings adapt to survive. And that sometimes means adapting to another species with which they coexist, and to the own changes of this symbiont. Seeing the whole picture, while sheds light on its small intricacies, is not easy at all.
A day in the life of an evolutionary ecologist
To be able to study it thoroughly, Jorge has to be employed hard in the laboratory performing genetic and genomic studies. Field work is also essential in their investigations. “Right now, I’m finishing the thesis, even my days are a bit more monotonous than usual,” he tells us casually, “but I’m not complaining.”
When we think of a scientist, we can automatically put on a gown, goggles, blue gloves and a bunch of colored test tubes. However, the reality of the researcher is usually more related to an armchair and a computer.”I usually start the day reading a scientific article and works close to my interests, although I would not say that they are exactly mine.”
“I do this because I’m afraid of falling into an excess of specialization, then basically, I spend the day in front of the computer, finishing analysis and writing manuscripts.” In the final phase of a doctoral student there are countless hours writing the fundamental parts of the thesis. But while this may be bland, on occasion, it also leaves room for “intellectual magic.”
The mental process that leads to the development of a hypothesis or its consequences is the fundamental piece of scientific creation. “I especially like complex discussions with Roger, they are unpredictable, intellectually very stimulating, but also practical.” Roger Jovani is a researcher specializing in evolutionary ecology and co-director of Jorge’s thesis.
The mite speciation that occurs when passing, these, from one bird to another is one of the most relevant processes for its diversity
“It is usually a very intense and irregular take and give, where, afterwards, we arrive at a moment in which a complex problem is solved.These moments are very gratifying”. And what is the goal of all this effort? Among Jorge’s achievements are the discovery that, in these small arachnids, the speciation that occurs when passing from one bird to another is also the most important process for its diversity.
“In such limited symbionts for transmission, such as mites of feathers, speciation by host jump is also the most relevant process for its evolutionary diversification.This discovery was unexpected according to the existing theory and has a great impact to understand the dynamics of emerging diseases or the appearance of pests, among other things.”
“In addition, it allows us to approach other proposed theories, such as the coevolutionary geographic mosaic theory, of interacting organisms less limited in the transmission to host-symbiont systems, which have generally been understood as independent coevolutive units”. So, in summary, every day, Jorge works to give a more realistic, and also global, vision that integrates these relationships and the animals that star them , to better understand how life evolves.
How does one decide to become a student of evolution?
“My childhood was spent between Chiclana de la Frontera, in Cádiz, and Yunquera, Málaga,” Jorge tells us. In its early years, this environment and the relationship with nature seem to have sentenced the fate of the researcher . “It was easy for me to develop a great interest in the natural world, and later, a high school science teacher did not have much trouble convincing me to go to study Biology at the University of Granada.”
But from here to the evolutionary ecology there is a stretch. Although they seem very similar, the branches of biology are many and very different. Choosing one (like evolutionary ecology) is a complex decision, because it will determine your scientific future. “During the race I had the good fortune to learn a lot from excellent professors such as Juan Gabriel Martínez and José María Gómez, who encouraged me to dedicate myself to this research”.
“I would say it was during the evolutionary ecology class of fifth year, I think, when I realized that this was my discipline, I had everything that I liked: natural history, genetics, computer science, advanced statistical methods , etc.” With the decision also come the challenges to overcome. Jorge’s field is not exempt from them.
“My current great challenge, I would dare to say, is the same as that of any scientist who is in Spain: to have job stability and decent working conditions to be able to continue investigating, the prospects are discouraging and this makes it really difficult”.
A face in the scientific future of this country
A few months ago, Jorge received from the Youth Service of the City of Seville, a recognition in the ” Young Award for Scientific Culture.” This is granted to encourage the research work of young scientists and publicize their work in society.
“It was a great joy, even though I was aware of the high level of participation, although, honestly, what I was most happy about was that it arrived on time so that my grandfather could find out. in many things and it was not less the day I told him about the prize, even though I was already very sick”.
“Things like this help one to continue with the one that is falling in. The recognition I think is the result of a lot of excellent work with Roger Jovani and David Serrano, my thesis directors, who are great, together with our collaborators”. The one of Jorge Doña is one more face in this scientific tide formed by thousands of young people who try to look for their hollow in the investigating world.
Scientists with a great formation, intense work capacities and even more resolution. Even so, all this is not enough, it seems, to welcome the huge number of young researchers who produce our universities . How is the future of “evolutionary ecologists” like Jorge? And the one of any other novel scientist?
“I would love to continue investigating in this line,” he says. “Understanding better the dynamics of speciation of these symbionts, I think there is work for several lives.” The investigation is far from over. “Now that we know some general patterns, I would very much like to get closer to the details of the processes because they are sure to lead us to new patterns , and we are already in it!”.
In order to continue with his evolutionary exploration, as soon as he finishes his doctorate, Jorge will continue working with new analytical techniques . “As of September I start a postdoctoral contract in AllGenetics, a Spanish company specialized in genomics”. In the case of Jorge, he will be able to continue between here and the University of Illinois, for at least a few years.
“The scarce social recognition and professional difficulties of this work, which is already very demanding, is impressive”
It could be considered as one of the luckiest faces. A figure that shows that science in Spain still has its place, despite the cuts and obstacles that are imposed on research professionals. Meanwhile, thousands of young scientists, with an irreproachable curriculum and great merits in their careers, have to emigrate in search of an opportunity outside of this country.
“The scant social recognition and professional difficulties of this work [that of research] is impressive, which is already very demanding,” he says seriously. “I would like to tell everyone that there is a lot of talent young researchers here and that a lot of this has already migrated, we have to improve and bet decisively for science in this country,” the ecologist ditches.