PlantLink Researcher in the Spotlight – Øystein Opedal

Øystein H. Opedal is an associate senior lecturer at the Biodiversity Unit, Department of Biology, Lund University. He is one of three PIs of the research group ‘Evolutionary Ecology of Plant-Insect Interactions’.

What is currently on top of your research agenda?

Our research team focuses on how species adapt when their environments change, with empirical focus on animal-pollinated plants and their interactors (pollinators, but also seed predators, herbivores, and other plants). Much of the work is nested in the theoretical framework of evolutionary quantitative genetics, in which phenotypic evolution (change in phenotypes over time) is decomposed into a natural selection component, and an inheritance component. To forecast how phenotypes evolve, we thus aim to understand which factors lead to variation in selection on phenotypes, and which factors affect the ability of populations to respond to this selection, their evolvability.

We study these processes both conceptually (through method and theory development and synthesis of existing results) and through case studies. Our main study system has been Dalechampia, a genus of tropical plants with rather unusual pollination systems. The two major systems are pollination by female bees that collect floral resin for use in nest construction, and pollination by male euglossine bees that collect floral fragrance compounds that they compile into perfumes used in mating displays. In this system we are focusing both on how populations respond evolutionarily to comparatively ‘minor’ changes in pollinator assemblages (say, a decline in the local pollinator abundance), and more dramatic changes such as the shift from pollination by resin-collecting female to fragrance-collecting male bees.

We are not alone is focusing on rather specialized pollination systems, perhaps because they are exciting or just easier to study. Because it is unclear how well insights from these systems can be extrapolated to species with generalized pollination by diverse insects, we have also started to work on a new empirical system in Skåne, Viscaria vulgaris. Viscaria is visited and pollinated by anything from flies and solitary bees to moths and butterflies, and we hope this system will allow us to test a lot of ideas about plant adaptation to variation in pollinator assemblages.

-Tell us about your latest publication?

My latest paper, A functional view reveals substantial predictability of pollinator-mediated selection, came out just before Christmas, though has been in the works for years. It’s a synthesis paper on pollinator-mediated selection on flowers, aiming to assess to what extent patterns of selection vary in predictable ways when the local community of pollinators change. The idea is that if we can make such predictions with reasonable accuracy, we should in principle be able to forecast how populations adapt to future changes in pollinators (such as pollinator declines). The results were rather encouraging in suggesting that we can often make reasonably good predictions by knowing things about (1) the functional roles of specific traits in the pollination process, (2) the local reliability of pollination (rate of pollen arrival onto stigmas), and (3) correspondence between flower and pollinator phenotypes. A caveat of these results is that many of the case studies on which the synthesis was based were focused on rather specialized systems, such as pollination of long-tubed flowers by long-tongued flies or moths. How well these results will hold in species with generalized pollination is one of the things we hope to answer in our Viscaria project.

-What led you into your particular field of research?

Partly chance encounters with inspiring mentors, but I also think the variety of approaches we use in evolutionary botany (field studies, greenhouse experiments, genetics and phylogenetics, etc.) was a great fit for me, as was the close connection between theory and empirical studies in the topics I work on, like mating-system evolution and quantitative genetics.

For my master thesis I worked with alpine plant communities, and I still enjoy field work in mountain ecosystems most summers (mostly in Scandinavia but I have also worked a little in the Rockies of North America). During my master I met Scott Armbruster, who introduced me to his Dalechampia system, and when the opportunity arose to work on that for my PhD the choice was easy. Other members of the international Dalechampia group also introduced me to evolutionary quantitative genetics, which allowed me to forge my own research profile combining extensive field campaigns with greenhouse experiments and evolutionary analyses.

-What are the implications of your research for the society?

First, I should say that my research is basic in the sense that my immediate aim is to understand evolution in wild plants and their interactors. That being said I do like to think that understanding and forecasting how wild plants adapt to changes in pollinator assemblages will become important for sustainable development of the society. It seems easy to say that this is important because most wild plants as well as crops rely on pollinators, but the truth is that we yet lack a lot of knowledge about, for example, how changes in human land use affects food production directly and indirectly through changes in pollinator assemblages. More generally it seems that most of the ‘basic’ evolutionary questions we are asking are somehow influenced by human activities, especially in the plant-animal interactions world. In our Viscaria project we will study populations that occur in landscapes characterized by different land-use patterns, and of the aims has become to assess how land-use (like agriculture) affects the pollination of a wild plant. I guess this is my way of bringing some applied aspects into my work.

-Finally, let´s say you got unlimited research funds; where would your research be five years from now?

I always found this question difficult, because my research is ‘cheap’ in terms of equipment and analyses. It always amazes me how much we can learn about evolution by making caliper measurements and field observations! That being said, funding to support additional team members would allow us to add more study systems and greater replication, which I hope will lead us to a better understanding of how wild plants adapt to their environments and allow us to make predictions about how and when such adaptation fails.

Thank you Øystein! We wish you the best of luck with your research, and congratulations to your recent VR grant.

(Photo: private)