We run a number of research projects out of our lab, funded by the Australian Research Council. These are outlined below.
Mitochondria and the evolution of life
While scientists have discovered much about the mechanics and biochemistry of the mitochondria, very little is actually known about how natural variation in the set of genetic instructions (the DNA sequence) found within our mitochondria affect our day to day lives, particularly in terms of our likelihood of having certain diseases, problems with conceiving children, or prospects of living long and healthy lives.
We use a combination of scientific methods, with expertise spanning the boundaries of evolution, ecology and genetics, to address these fundamental gaps in our knowledge.
Recently, our research demonstrated that the maternal inheritance of the mitochondria is bad news for males – because it facilitates the accumulation of male-harming mutations within the mitochondrial DNA that basically avoid the watch of natural selection.
These mutations affect fertility and even patterns of aging in males but not in females, and this might help to explain patterns of male infertility in humans, and why females generally outlive the males.
We are interested in the general co-evolutionary dynamics of the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes. Our mitochondrial genes contribute to encoding life’s most important biological function – oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) – which is responsible for more than 90% of our energy production.
However, OXPHOS ultimately depends on finely coordinated interactions between genes dispersed over two obligate genomes – nuclear and mitochondrial. Fundamental genetic differences between these genomes set the stage for perpetual inter-genomic – perhaps even sexually antagonistic – evolutionary conflicts over optimization of our biological function.
Oxidation and the evolution of life histories
Our mitochondria produce our energy, but leak damaging reactive oxygen metabolites in the process.
Paradoxically, therefore, the major engine underpinning complex life is also the major producer of toxic free radicals that will at high levels threaten the viability of life.
Our research explores the importance of oxidative stress as a general driver and constraint in life-history evolution and adaptation under sexual selection.