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Genomic Perspectives in Comparative Physiology of Mollusks: Integration across Disciplines

About the author: Dr. Omera Matoo (she/her/hers) is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, NE. Her research uses evolutionary genetics and ecophysiology to understand how organisms, from both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, maintain energetic fitness under stress. She earned her PhD in Biology from University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013, where she studied the physiological plasticity of marine bivalves in response to ocean acidification and global warming with Dr. Inna Sokolova. Follow her on Twitter @OmeraMatoo.



Mapping genotype to phenotype remains one of the biggest challenges in biology. Yet, characterizing the genetic pathways that affect ecological success and evolutionary fitness in natural environments is increasingly important in the face of global climate change. The NSF has recognized genome-to-phenome as one of the Grand Challenges in Biology.

Figure 1:
Mobilizing molluscan models and genomes in biology; Davison & Neiman 2020.
Image credit: Emily Jalinsky (@emilyjalinsky).

Two critical, yet poorly understood questions  in genome-to-phenome research are:

  • How do genomes give rise to complex organismal phenotypes?
  • How are genomic processes linked to organismal function respond to ecological and evolutionary stimuli?

Connecting genotypes and genomic variation to functional and ecological consequences demands tools and concepts from a diverse set of fields including molecular biology, physiology, quantitative genetics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. This type of integrated approach will help to identify and decouple genetic vs. plastic underpinnings of ecologically relevant functional variation and characterize the ecological consequences of that variation. Achieving this ambitious goal will require collaboration across disciplines as well openness to learning new concepts, methodologies, and tools in order to expand the number of species under investigation, particularly understudied taxonomic groups.

One such understudied group are the Mollusks. From an evolutionary perspective, they are notable for their remarkable diversity: originating over 500 million years ago, there are over 70,000 extant mollusk species and are present in virtually every ecosystem (Rosenberg, 2014). However, despite their biological, ecological (e.g., invasive species), economic (e.g., fisheries), and medical importance (e.g., schistosomiasis vector), critical steps towards understanding molluscan biology have been prevented by both general challenges associated with working with  molluscs and specific challenges in genome sequencing and assembly (Gomes-dos-Santos et al., 2020). This has been compounded by the longstanding presumption that molluscs and related phyla are not sufficiently important or of high-enough profile to be worthy of intense research focus, relative to studies on vertebrates or other invertebrates.

Figure 2:
a. Twitter comment from symposium speaker.

The 2021 “Genomic Perspectives in Comparative Physiology of Mollusks: Integration across Disciplines” symposium was organized by Dr. Maurine Neiman (U of Iowa) and me at The Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) annual meeting on January 4, 2021. This unique interdisciplinary symposium was supported by multiple divisions of SICB, including Division of Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry (DCPB), Division of Ecology and Evolution (DEE), Division of Evolutionary Developmental Biology (DEDB), Division of Invertebrate Zoology (DIZ), and Division of Phylogenetics and Comparative Biology (DPCB). The symposium was generously funded by SICB, The National Science Foundation (NSF), American Genetics Association (AGA), and The Company of Biologists (CoB). The invited speakers represented five different countries, three continents, and a wide range of disciplinary expertise, including ecophysiologists, integrative biologists, phylogeneticists, bioinformaticians, genomicists, and scientists involved in developing transgenic tools for mollusks. The talks in our symposium featured a wide range of ecologically important concepts including but not limited to immune function, symbiosis, mitochondrial biology, host-parasite interactions, and the role of mutation and epigenetics in organismal change to environment.

Figure 2:
b. Twitter comment from symposium participant.

Our goal was to bring together experts in these different subdisciplines of mollusk biology, providing an unprecedented opportunity for knowledge exchange and catalyzing new partnerships. Discussions centered around possible solutions that might be transformative, such as accessible transgenics, development of cell culture and immortal cell lines, and gene editing technologies (e.g., CRISPR/Cas9). Despite the symposium being virtual, several collaborations involving the short visit of graduate students and trainees between labs in future were initiated. One of the success stories to come out of this symposium is the formation of mollusk Genome Interest Group (mGIG) spearheaded by one of our participants from Europe, Dr. Alice Dennis (U of Potsdam). In just over two weeks, mGIG has already enrolled 60 members world-wide. This collaborative effort will enable interested researchers to work together as a community to develop genomic resources to understand the biology of mollusks and beyond. And also, keep an eye out for the Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 special issue featuring collaborative perspectives and cutting-edge research from symposium contributors!



Rosenberg G. 2014 A new critical estimate of named species-level diversity of the recent Mollusca. American Malacological Bulletin 32, 308-322. (doi:10.4003/006.032.0204)

Gomes-dos-Santos A., Lopes-Lima M., Castro L.F.C., Froufe E. 2020 Molluscan genomics: the road so far and the way forward. Hydrobiologia 847, 1705-1726. (doi:10.1007/s10750-019-04111-1)

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