Since February 2022, Luisa Pallares is head of a new research group at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory (FML) of the Max Planck Institute for Biology Tübingen. The evolutionary biologist aims to understand the genetic basis of complex traits using natural populations of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. She explores how the relationship between genetic and phenotypic variation changes depending on the environmental conditions. In particular, Pallares wants to use this knowledge to understand how populations, despite being very resilient, are still able to change and adapt.
Why are some individuals more resistant to stressful environments than others? Is there a specific location in the genome that is responsible for this? Or thousands? How does the relationship between genotype (the genetic blueprint of an organism) and phenotype (observable traits of an organisms ranging from gene expression levels to morphology) change over the process of evolution? And why is this relationship much more dynamic than previously believed? These are the questions that Luisa Pallares, new research group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory, addresses in her research.
"Previously, it was commonly thought that certain genes always result in the same external appearance, that the relationship between genotype and phenotype was stable," Pallares explains. In her latest research, she showed that such relationship is highly dynamic, resulting in pervasive “genotype by environment interactions": genomic segments previously thought to be irrelevant can gain an important role in new environmental conditions. "This means that there is plenty of cryptic genetic variation that accumulates in the genome and it might play an important role in the adaptation process. This brought my attention to one of the oldest questions in evolutionary biology: how can we explain the robustness and evolvability properties of a population?" By robustness, evolutionary biologists mean the capacity of an organism to withstand environmental or genetic perturbation and remain functional. Evolvability, on the other hand, is the ability of a population to change in response to such perturbations and adapt to the new conditions.
At the FML in Tübingen, Pallares will use hundreds of thousands of wild flies and experimental evolution set ups to detect which parts of the genome come into play during different stages of the adaptation process. “In other words,” she further clarifies, “I want to explore the dynamic nature of the genotype–phenotype map in real time.”
Luisa Pallares, originally from Colombia, discovered her enthusiasm for evolutionary biology while studying biology. This brought her to Plön in Northern Germany, where she obtained her PhD in 2015. Subsequently, she conducted research on the fruit fly as a postdoc at Princeton University from 2016 to 2021.
"After my time as a doctoral student at the MPI for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, coming back to Germany felt very familiar," Pallares reflects. What is new for her, however, is the role as head of a research group: "I am extremely excited to now be able to not only do research but also to supervise young scientists while they explore exciting questions in evolutionary biology!"
Luisa F. Pallares
Friedrich Miescher Laboratory
Max Planck Ring 9