Dr Luke Dunning


Postdoctoral Research Associate

The University of Sheffield

I am an evolutionary biologist interested in understanding how organisms adapt to their environment. My research is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underpinning the adaptation to novel environments, whether this be stick insects to low-temperature alpine habitats in New Zealand, palm trees to different soil types on remote oceanic islands, or widely distributed grasses that have rapidly expanded their niche to successfully colonise half of the world. I am currently based in Dr. Pascal-Antoine Christin's lab at The University of Sheffield where I am investigating how lateral gene transfer can drive environmental adaptation in tropical grasses.


Main Research Areas


Lateral gene transfer (LGT) in grasses

In multicellular organisms, exchange of genetic information occurs mainly among individuals belonging to the same species through sexual reproduction. LGT between distantly related taxa has been demonstrated in some cases, but its frequency and evolutionary importance have been controversial. By comparing genomes of many grasses, we show that large blocks of DNA containing functional genes are laterally passed among distantly related species. Some of these genes are then used by the recipient species, expanding their genetic toolkit. The spread of functional genes across grasses that have developed distinct physiological and ecological adaptations may therefore represent a significant evolutionary driving force in this globally important group of plants.


Ecological speciation in Howea palms

Howea palms are a textbook example of speciation where differences in flowering time and soil type preference are thought to have driven their divergence. During my previous Postdoctoral Research Associate position I was based in the lab of Prof. Vincent Savolainen, Imperial College London, where I was using RNA-Seq to examine the genetic basis of the palms divergence. Using RNA-Seq we identified a set of potential 'ecological speciation genes'  genes capable of simultaneously driving soil  adaptation and the displacement of flowering time between the species.


Cold-tolerance in alpine stick insects

Stick insects are typically tropical species, however, in New Zealand they have successfully colonised the alpine environment. My PhD from The University of Auckland  was focused on identifying the molecular basis to this remarkable adaptation. Using transcriptomics and cold-shock experiments we showed that there are different strategies to cope with the cold, with some species capable of freezing, whilst others remain active at low temperatures.


Contact Me

Animal and Plant Science, The University of Sheffield


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