Max Winston    




army ants

De novo genome and locus assembly

As improvements in sequencing technology continue to produce greater amounts of data at cheaper cost, computational methods to assemble the small fragments of DNA sequence and transform them into practical information have become critical for biological inference. De novo genome and locus assembly are extremely powerful computational techniques in that they can provide genomic data for organisms without previous investment in sequencing. My dissertation work centers on understanding these processes and the appropriate statistical methods for applying these data types to a variety of biological questions across spatial and temporal scales. Specifically, my dissertation work has included the de novo assembly of the Eciton burchellii genome, as well as reduced-representation sequencing (RAD-seq) and de novo assembly of loci for phylogenomics and population genomics in the Neotropical army ant genus Eciton.


Biogeographic mechanisms

Heritability of complex traits

Complex quantitative traits are ubiquitous in natural populations, and are often heritable, even if the precise genetic mechanism remains unknown. As many complex traits are phenotypically plastic—meaning the state of the trait is dependent on one or several responses to environmental cues—determining the heritability of a complex trait can be difficult. Genetic analysis of variation among individuals within the same population is an important method of revealing heritable variation, effectively demonstrating the susceptibility of this variation to evolution by natural selection as well as the sensitivity of the character to realistic environmental variation. Part of my dissertation has focused on how to refine methods for detecting heritability in complex morphological traits, since it is well established that morphological traits tend to be more heritable than physiological and life history traits.


Morphological castes

Macroevolution of complex traits

Identifying the factors that promote the origin of novel traits is central to evolutionary biology. Simultaneously, developmental plasticity has been intimately linked to the origins of evolutionary innovation, and since all developmental processes are sensitive to environmental variation it follows that plasticity is the primitive character state for most traits. My dissertation work in the Neotropical army ant genus Eciton poses several macroevolutionary questions about the nature of complex trait variation across spatial and temporal scales. One of particular interest is whether heritable variation is as critical to change across macroevolutionary time scales as it is known to be in microevolutionary processes.



earth microbiome project


Metagenomic surveys and the Cannabis microbiome

Bacterial interactions within the soil play a major role in plant ecology, as soil microorganisms can provide a variety of benefits such as nitrogen fixation, production of growth stimulants, improved water retention, and suppression of root diseases. Frequently, these vital microbial processes occur within the diverse community of the rhizosphere and rhizoplane due to their higher interaction with the plant root system, and are heavily influenced by fungal saprotrophs and plant-mutualists such as endomycorrhizal and ectomycorrhizal fungi. Despite the economic and medicinal importance of Cannabis, little is known about its microbial associations within the soil environment. A survey of the microbial communities associated with several different strains of Cannabis offers us insight into the edaphic and cultivar-specific factors that control the microbiome composition.