Lab

Conchita Alonso.&.Carlos M. Herrera's Lab

About the lab

Our research focuses on the study of ecological interactions between plants and animals, and on their leading role in the micro and macroevolutionary processes affecting population viability and speciation of higher plants. Within this conceptual framework we conduct a multidisciplinary research combining field work, molecular genetics and epigenetics, and chemical and microbiological analyses. We are currently paying special attention to plant-pollinator interactions, and to the potential role of epigenetic variation in natural plant populations as a source of adaptations to pollinators, microbes, herbivores and abiotic stressors. Traditionally focused on studying higher plants (Angiosperms), we have recently incorporated mosses as study objects.

Featured projects (4)

Project
The core research aim of EpiDiverse is to advance the field of plant ecological epigenetics by applying high-resolution epigenomics research tools and ecological experimental designs to a an ecologically diverse set of natural plant species. Ultimately, the projects aims at exposing the contribution of epigenetic variation to the adaptive capacity of plants.
Project
There has been a recent upsurge of interest on the ecological and evolutionary significance of epigenetic processes, which involve heritable phenotypic changes unrelated to alterations in DNA sequence. In the case of plants, mounting interest on epigenetic processes has been largely promoted by results showing that in some model species epigenetic changes in the phenotype can be induced by the environment and are often passed without alterations across generations. Epigenetic processes may alter fitness-related traits and, thus, influence ecological processes. This project is aimed to deepen into the importance of epigenetic processes in wild non-model plants. We are particularly interested in analyzing the role of epigenetic variation in plant-animal interactions. Financial support: Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad EPIECOL (CGL2013-43352-P); EPIENDEM (CGL2016-76605-P); EPINTER (PID2019-104365GB-I00)
Project
Analysing plant-pollinator interactions, pollen limitation by quantity and quality, and the reproductive success of coexisting endemic and non-endemic species. Exploring which species-specific and environmental features contribute to modulate such interactions and their outcome.
Project
to provide a deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying the existence of phenotypic variability for heavy metals tolerance and hyperaccumulation in mosses (which differ from those in higher plants), as well as the necessary background knowledge to subsequently develop high potential biotechnological tools for air quality remediation (focusing mainly in urban and indoor environments). This will be achieved by means of the integrated use of various tools from several biological disciplines such as ecophysiology, chemistry, microscopy, transcriptomics, epigenomics and bioinformatics.

Featured research (9)

Plant metabolic pathways and gene networks involved in the response to herbivory are well-established, but the impact of epigenetic factors as modulators of those responses is less understood. Here, we use the demethylating agent 5-azacytidine to uncover the role of DNA cytosine methylation on phenotypic responses after short-term herbivory in Thlaspi arvense plants that came from two European populations with contrasting flowering phenotypes expected to differ in the response to experimental demethylation. The experimental design followed a 2×3 factorial design, that was replicated for each flowering-type. First, half the seeds were submerged in a water solution of 5-azacytidine and the other half only in water, as controls. Then, we assigned control and demethylated plants to three herbivory categories (i) insect herbivory, (ii) artificial herbivory, and (iii) undamaged plants. The effects of the demethylation and herbivory treatments were assessed by quantifying genome-wide global DNA cytosine methylation, concentration of leaf glucosinolates, final stem biomass, fruit and seed production, and seed size. For most of the plant traits analysed, individuals from the two flowering-types responded differently. In late-flowering plants, global DNA methylation did not differ between control and demethylated plants but it was significantly reduced by herbivory. Conversely, in early-flowering plants, demethylation at seed stage was still evident in leaf DNA of reproductive individuals whereas herbivory did not affect their global DNA methylation. In late-flowering plants, artificial herbivory imposed a stronger reduction than insect herbivory in global DNA methylation and final stem biomass, and induced higher concentration of aliphatic glucosinolates. In early-flowering plants, the effects of herbivory were non-significant for the same traits. Finally, the effect of herbivory on reproductive parameters varied with the level of demethylation and the plant flowering-type. Although further investigations with more populations and families are required to confirm our results, they suggest that the genetic background of experimental plants and timing of damage can affect the response to herbivory and point towards multifaceted genetic-epigenetic interactions in determining herbivory-induced phenotypic plasticity.
A sound biological education at early schooling stages is highly desirable for individual understanding of the nature of science and comprehension of evolutionary theory. Making accessible the concepts to young minds is notwithstanding key and playful learning linked to artistic projects can be useful to reach this goal. Here, we propose a set of activities structured into three units that can be developed at school. They use music as a playful learning tool to support students’ motivation to discover the building blocks of genetic code, genetic variation and epigenetic regulation. Familiarity with these core molecular concepts will smooth their future understanding of the evolutionary process. A final activity programmed for a general audience can also contribute to better value scientific knowledge among the local population. And, it will potentially inspire some young girls and boys in orienting their future career development towards science.
Phenotypic variation determines the capacity of plants to adapt to changing environments and to colonize new habitats. Deciphering the mechanisms contributing to plant phenotypic variation and their effects on plant ecological interactions and evolutionary dynamics is thus central to all biological disciplines. In the past few decades, research on plant epigenetics is showing that (1) epigenetic variation is related to phenotypic variation and that some epigenetic marks drive major phenotypic changes in plants; (2) plant epigenomes are highly diverse, dynamic, and can respond rapidly to a variety of biotic and abiotic stimuli; (3) epigenetic variation can respond to selection and therefore play a role in adaptive evolution. Yet, current information in terms of species, geographic ranges, and ecological contexts analyzed so far is too limited to allow for generalizations about the relevance of epigenetic regulation in phenotypic innovation and plant adaptation across taxa. In this report, we contextualize the potential role of the epigenome in plant adaptation to the environment and describe the latest research in this field presented during the symposium "Plant epigenetics: phenotypic and functional diversity beyond the DNA sequence" held within the Botany 2020 conference framework in summer 2020.
Epigenetic mosaicism is a possible source of within‐plant phenotypic heterogeneity, yet its frequency and developmental origin remain unexplored. This study examines whether extant epigenetic heterogeneity within Lavandula latifolia (Lamiaceae) shrubs reflects recent epigenetic modifications experienced independently by different plant parts or, alternatively, it is the cumulative outcome of a steady lifetime process. Leaf samples from different architectural modules (branch tips) were collected from three L. latifolia plants and characterized epigenetically by global DNA cytosine methylation and methylation state of methylation‐sensitive amplified fragment length polymorphism markers (MS‐AFLP). Epigenetic characteristics of modules were then assembled with information on the branching history of plants. Methods borrowed from phylogenetic research were used to assess genealogical signal of extant epigenetic variation and reconstruct within‐plant genealogical trajectory of epigenetic traits. Plants were epigenetically heterogeneous, as shown by differences among modules in global DNA methylation and variation in the methylation states of 6‐8% of MS‐AFLP markers. All epigenetic features exhibited significant genealogical signal within plants. Events of epigenetic divergence occurred throughout the lifespan of individuals and were subsequently propagated by branch divisions. Internal epigenetic diversification of L. latifolia individuals took place steadily during their development, a process which eventually led to persistent epigenetic mosaicism.
Anthropogenic activities have increased exposure to heavy metal pollution in previously uncontaminated ecosystems, threatening plant communities. Considering that phenotypic variation underlies rapid adjustment to challenging environmental conditions in natural populations, the study of variation in traits related to plant response to heavy metal stress provides valuable insight into the likelihood of a population’s survival. This paper investigates patterns of intraspecific phenotypic variation for heavy metal accumulation and tolerance in bryophytes, one of the most resilient and relatively understudied plant taxa. We examined two moss species with contrasting affinities for heavy metals: the heavy metal specialist Scopelophila cataractae, and the facultative metallophyte Ceratodon purpureus. We sampled four populations of S. cataractae in close microhabitats with different contamination levels of Cd and Cu, one population of C. purpureus in an urban area, and separate lab-maintained male and female isolates from one population of C. purpureus growing in axenic conditions. After clonally propagating all populations under control, Cd and Cu treatments, we measured plant fitness, oxidative damage, and Cd and Cu accumulation. Scopelophila cataractae isolates from microhabitats with higher levels of metals in the field (Sc2, Sc3) were more tolerant than those collected in less contaminated microhabitats (Sc1, Sc4). Sc2 and Sc3 accumulated significantly less Cu in the leaves compared to the stem which could limit damage to their main photosynthetic organs and contribute to the observed differences in Cu tolerance. In contrast C. purpureus showed intraspecific differences in tolerance to Cd and Cu, but not in accumulation. These differences arose among isolates that had never been exposed to heavy metals before. We also report the first evidence for sexual dimorphism for Cd tolerance in this species, with females being more tolerant than males. Altogether, our results provide novel insights into the mechanisms used by bryophytes to deal with heavy metal stress, as well as the first evidence for metal-dependent, sex-specific differences in heavy metal tolerance in bryophytes.

Lab head

Conchita Alonso
Department
  • Evolutionary Ecology
About Conchita Alonso
  • I am a Plant Evolutionary Ecologist particularly interested in plant-animal interactions, mating system evolution and epigenetics

Members (8)

Monica Medrano
  • Spanish National Research Council
Ricardo Pérez
  • Scientific Research Centre "Isla de la Cartuja"
Rubén Martín-Blázquez
  • Estación Biológica de Doñana
Teresa Boquete
  • University of Santiago de Compostela
Javier Puy
  • Estacion Biologica de Doñana, CSIC
Javier Valverde
  • Estación Biológica de Doñana
Alejandro Núñez
  • Estación Biológica de Doñana
Anupoma Troyee
  • Spanish National Research Council
C.M. Herrera
C.M. Herrera
  • Not confirmed yet
Pilar Bazaga
Pilar Bazaga
  • Not confirmed yet
Esmeralda Lopez
Esmeralda Lopez
  • Not confirmed yet