Evolutionary Spaghetti Networks

I’m busy preparing my three-hour stint at the ‘Bioinformatics in Molecular Parasitology Workshop’ @McGill in June. I’ve been given a pretty freehand on what to talk. Most of the preceding two and half days will be introducing them on the concepts of phylogenetics and molecular evolution – a huge thank you to Robin Beech for taking on that unenviable task.

After toying with a few ideas, I think I’ll split the three hours between cophylogenies and evolutionary networks. Both of these are concepts that I’ve wanted to understand better and nothing focuses the mind more than having to stand up and teach it.

Cophylogeny is an established, if small, field of parasitology, focusing on evolutionary associations between the host and parasite. For numerous reasons, most of the published literature involved ectoparasites such as lice and ticks (aside: I pulled a wood tick from my wife’s head today, probably picked up from hiking in Jasper). Cophylogenies look at host-switching and whether the parasite species tree is congruent with the host species tree. There some examples of incongruence in non-ectoparasites, including Plasmodium falciparum (malaria).

Evolutionary Networks have been around for since before Darwin. However, they’ve gained traction in the last few years and it seems that everyone is putting them in their manuscripts in the place of the once ubiquituous, but oft inappropriate phylogenetic tree. They’re very complicated beasts, but with the help of several reviews and a couple of books, I hope to articulate my new found understanding to the workshop attendees.

-jdw

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