Chemical communication is the oldest form of communication in nature. How individuals within and between species interact through chemical signals and responses determines to a large extent the network of life. To gain insight in the evolution of chemical communication, we study the evolution of sexual communication through sex pheromones, because sexual attraction is the first step in determining who mates with whom and thus plays a pivotal role in the process of speciation. Nocturnal moths are ideal animals to study the causes and consequences of variation in chemical signals and responses, because their communication channel is virtually all pheromonal, and the pheromone components are very well defined. Our research revolves around the following two major questions: I) what is the genetic basis of intraspecific variation in sexual communication, and II) what are the causes and consequences of variation in sexual communication. Our research can be divided into the following main areas:
Moth sex pheromones are widely studied as fine-tuned systems that reinforce reproductive isolation between species. Female moths produce a sex pheromone in a well-defined gland that can be readily quantified. The male behavioral response is robust and specific, and the well-studied pheromone sensory system serves as an important model for decoding olfactory preference in general. However, their evolution poses a dilemma: How can the female pheromone and male preference simultaneously change to create a new pattern of species-specific attraction? We aim to solve this puzzle by identifying the genes underlying intraspecific variation in signals (Lassance, Groot et al. 2010. Nature 466) and responses (Koutroumpa et al. 2016. PNAS 113). This project is conducted with David Heckel at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology and is the PhD project of Elise Fruitet (IMPRS fellow).
Plasticity in the sex pheromone composition in female moths can be expected, because females produce their pheromone de novo every night and in many moth species females can perceive their own pheromone compounds. We found plasticity in the sex pheromone of a noctuid moth (see Groot et al. 2010. J. Evol. Biol. 23). Therefore, we now investigate the level and extent of plasticity in moth sexual communication, and the underlying mechanisms. PhD project of Rik Lievers, funded by NWO-ALW (award nr. 822.01.012).
In animals, sexual attraction is essential to finding the right mating partner. Moths are one of the most diverse group of animals, with ~120.000 species, each having its own sexual communication channel. However, sexual selection may also act on moth signals that have hardly been studied at all: close-range attraction, whereby males emit a sex pheromone. The male sex pheromone can be used by females to choose among males, and/or it may function in male-male competition. To develop evolutionary scenarios on how mutual mate choice contributes to speciation and signal diversity, we study the role of male close-range pheromone in female choice and male-male competition. Collaborative project with Coby Schal at NCSU. PhD project of Naomi Zweerus, funded by NWO-ALW (award nr: ALWOP.2015.075 )
Parasites, pathogens and other stress factors early in life (i.e. in the larval stage) likely affect adult (sexual) behaviors. We are exploring differential immune defense responses in the generalist Heliothis virescens and the specialist H. subflexa and possible effects on their sexual communication (see Barthel et al. 2016. Nat. Comm 7). In addition, we are exploring the level and extent of parasite-mediated sexual selection in moths (specifically Helicoverpa armigera) and butterflies, in collaboration with Jacobus de Roode, Jamie Walters, Myron Zalucki and David Heckel. PhD project of Ke Gao
Invasive species can profoundly affect species interactions and pose a serious threat when these species are agricultural pests. The fall army worm (FAW) Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae) is a major pest in staple crops in North and South America and recently invaded Africa and Asia. Biological control methods that are currently used to control lepidopteran insect pests include pheromone trapping and the spraying of baculoviruses (killing caterpillars). We are investigating the potential combination of both methods, which may yield exciting opportunities for biological control. This project is a collaboration between the UvA (Astrid Groot), WUR (dr. Vera Ros), icipe (prof. Baldwyn Torto, dr. Sevgan Subramanian, dr. Fathiya Khamis), IITA Benin (dr. Georg Goergen), funded by Dioraphte, Simonis BV and Pherobank. PhD students on this project are Renée van Schaijk (at UvA) and Ahmed Ghenga Hussain (at WUR).
Evolutionary biology can play an important role in solving some of the major challenges mankind faces today. Researchers are therefore working on predicting the evolution of multicellular life through experimental evolution with nematodes at multiple universities. This NWA project is a joint effort of a large number of research groups in the Netherlands and Belgium: The evolution experiment is carried out within the research groups of Astrid Groot (University of Amsterdam), Jacintha Ellers (VU), Marcel Visser and Steven Declerck (NIOO-KNAW), Maurijn van der Zee (LU), Rampal Etienne and Marjon de Vos (RUG), Jan Kammenga (WUR) and Dries Bonte (Ghent Univ). Principal investigators are Karen Bisschop and Thomas Blankers (previously Meike Wortel and Ken Kraaijeveld) and project technician is Janine Mariën.
The two noctuid moths Heliothis virescens (tobacco budworm) and H. subflexa have become model species to investigate the genetic basis of host plant specialization and sexual communication, because these two species can be hybridized in the lab and produce fertile offspring. These two species are so interesting, because H. virescens is a generalist, feeding on many different plant species, while H. subflexa is a specialist, feeding only on Physalis spp. Over the few past decades, several QTL have been identified underlying host plant differentiation, insecticide resistance, and sexual signals and responses. Currently, Megan Fritz (PI, Univ. Maryland), Fred Gould (NCSU), David Heckel (MPICE) and Astrid Groot are collaborating to analyse their genomes in a comparative way. PhD on this project is Rong Guo (Univ. Maryland)
Woodtiger moths are aposematic moth species that are well studied in terms of their defensive secretions and color polymorphism in the lab of Johanna Mappes. As mate choice seems to also be through chemical signals, we are now investigating the role of chemical attraction in different geographic regions, in collaboration with Bibiane Rojas, Emily Burdfield-Steel and Pherobank. Two PhD students are working on this project: Chiara de Pasqual, who is focusing on variation in chemical signals and responses between the different color morphs, and Cristina Ottocento, who is focusing on geograpic variation in sexual attraction between populations from Georgia, Finland and Estonia.
Chemical espionage, the exploitation of chemical signals by natural enemies, has been examined in a wide range of insect taxa. When a Trichogramma egg parasitoid wasp detects the anti-aphrodisiac (AA) pheromone of Pieris butterflies, it hitch-hikes with a mated female butterfly to a host plant and then parasitizes her freshly laid eggs. This chemical espionage-and-ride strategy seems more widespread in egg parasitoids than so far assumed (Fatouros et al., Huigens et al. 2009). This project investigates to what extent natural enemies such as Trichogramma egg parasitoids affect the evolution of AAs in Pieris butterflies in nature, and is a collaboration between Nina Fatouros (WUR), Bart Pannebakker (WUR), Eric Schranz (WUR) and Astrid Groot, with PhD student Xianhui Shi (at Wageningen University, WUR).
Many moth species show specific daily rhythms in their sexual activities, some species being sexually active early at night while others are sexually active late at night. However, very little is known on the genetic differentiation and evolution of this allochronic separation. We are investigating the genetic basis of allochronic differentiation in two strains of the noctuid moth Spodoptera frugiperda, and latitudinal and temporal variation in timing of sexual activities in the noctuid moth Helicoverpa armigera. Collaborative project with Sabine Haenniger (MPICE, Jena), David Heckel (MPICE) and Sander van Doorn (RUG)
In the three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria and Eukaryotes), different sets and copy numbers of tRNA are found. We are investigating patterns of tRNA combinations that are shared and unique in the different domains to gain a better understanding of the evolution of tRNA gene sets. This is a collaboration between Peter van der Gulik (CWI), Wouter Hoff (Oklahoma State), Ken Kraaijeveld (Leiden Hogeschool), Martijn Egas (UvA), Astrid Groot and Jenna Gallie (MPI Evolutionary Biology).
Caterpillars of the greater waxmoth, Galleria mellonella, have become the model organisms in biomedical research to investigate the virulence of human pathogens, such as the yeast Candida albicans. However, results vary greatly among labs, which is likely due to variation in (genetic and environmental) background and rearing conditions of the moth. This project aims to determine the causes and consequences of variation in genetic background, rearing conditions and microbiome on virulence responses to pathogens. This is a collaborative project between Ferry Hagen at the Westerdijk Institute and Astrid Groot. PhD student on this project is Auke de Jong.
MSc course Current trends in ecology and evolution (course coordinator: Astrid Groot)
In this course we give an introduction to the recent research developments and current research questions in the field of ecology and evolution. In group literature discussions, we critically evaluate recent research papers published in high-impact journals and evaluate their strong and weak points. Students get assignments to identify historical roots of research questions, find out current and new research techniques, and visualise and present their findings to the group. In addition, guest lectures will be given by ‘hotshots’ in the field, with whom students will discuss. The final product of the course is a research proposal, to be defended at the end of the course. This is the introduction course of the Master track Ecology and Evolution at the UvA.
MSc course Science-based geo-ecological management (course coordinator: Astrid Groot)
Nature conservation, restoration and agricultural use often generate conflicting demands between biodiversity, recreation, and other use of ecosystems. Often, interventions start without asking why we want to intervene and what are the aims. In addition, contrasting interests in management intentions may exist between stakeholders, executive organisations and scientists. This course aims to give insights in the ecological processes that should be considered to come to science-based management of geo-ecosystems. Geo-ecological and socio-ecological processes from local to landscape scale will be considered, and the spatiotemporal dynamics of ecosystems. This is an elective course in the Master track Future Planet Ecosystem Science at the UvA.
BSc course Ecogenomics (course coordinator: Harro Bouwmeester)
The emerging field of ecological genomics strives to uncover the genetic and molecular mechanisms influencing organisms’ responses and adaptations to their natural environments. Achieving this aim requires insight in evolution and selection pressure and how that results in natural variation. Molecular biological and genomic tools have primarily been developed for mammalian and agricultural model organisms (such as yeast and Arabidopsis) representing a narrow spectrum of phenotypes, whereas many organisms that are the focus of ecological research have had limited genomic resources devoted to them. In this course, we focus on the ways in which ecogenomics aims to unite genomic and ecological approaches. Specific approaches that will be discussed and demonstrated include: genome sequencing, genetic mapping (GWAS and QTL analysis), expression analysis (transcriptomics), proteomics, metabolomics and epigenomics. This course is part of the BSc programme Biology at the UvA.
Postgraduate course Chemical Communication (organizers: Marcel Dicke and Astrid Groot)
Chemical communication is one of the most abundant types of information exchange in life. Chemical signals or cues may be produced by macroorganisms or by their associated microorganisms. Chemical communication can also be exploited by a third party such as a predator exploiting cues from its prey. Chemical information may consist of individual compounds or complex mixtures. Responses to this information may be hardwired or phenotypically plastic. As a result, chemical communication and its exploitation shapes interactions between individuals, shapes population processes and structures communities. In this course, we focus on chemical information at different levels of biological organisation and pay attention at ecological processes and their underlying mechanisms. We include microorganism, plants and animals, their interactions and consequences for community dynamics. This is a course of the PE&RC graduate research school.
The overarching research aim in the Groot lab is to understand when and how sexual selection may drive differentation between populations, and thus initiate speciation. Our research includes behavioral analyses in lab and field experiments to quantify variation in female and male choice and interactions, chemical analyses to assess variation in female and male sex pheromones, genetic analyses to identify the genetic basis of sexually selected traits, and molecular analyses (qPCR, CRISPR-cas9) to functionally characterize the candidate genes.
MSc and BSc students, as well as ERASMUS students and students from other (international) programs, can develop a research project in one of the different PhD and postdoc projects listed in the 'Research' tab, or in one of the collaborative projects listed in the 'Collaborative projects' tab.
Student projects have led to the following publications (student names italic):
Gao K., Muijderman, D., Nichols, S., Heckel, D. G., Wang, P., Zalucki, M. P., & Groot, A. T. (2020). Parasite-host specificity: A cross-infection study of the parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, 170, . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jip.2020.107328
Gao, K., van Wijk, M., Clement, Z., Egas, M., & Groot, A. T. (2020). A life-history perspective on sexual selection in a polygamous species. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 20(1), . https://doi.org/10.1186/s12862-020-01618-3
Kerkvliet J, de Fouchier A, van Wijk M, Groot AT. 2019. The Bellerophon pipeline, improving de novo transcriptomes and removing chimeras. Ecology and Evolution 9: 10513-10521, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.5571
Groot AT, van Wijk M, Villacis-Perez E, Kuperus P, Schoefl G, van Veldhuizen D, Heckel DG. 2019. Within-population variability in a moth sex pheromone blend, part 2: selection towards fixation. Royal Society open science 6: 182050 https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.182050
Niepoth N, Gao K, De Roode JC, Groot AT. 2017. Comparing behavior and clock gene expression between caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. Journal of Biological Rhythms 33: 54-64 https://doi.org/10.1177/0748730417746458
Nojima S, Claben A, Groot AT, Schal C. 2018. Qualitative and quantitative analysis of chemicals emitted from the pheromone gland of individual Heliothis subflexa females. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202035. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0202035
Dumenil C, Judd G, Bosch D, Baldessari M, Gemeno C, Groot AT. 2014. Intraspecific variation in the female sex pheromone of the codling moth Cydia pomonella. Insects 5: 705-721. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects5040705
Groot AT, Schöfl G, Inglis O, Donnerhacke S, Classen A, Schmalz A, Santangelo RG, Emerson J, Gould F, Schal C, Heckel DG. 2014. Within-population variability in a moth sex pheromone blend: genetic basis and behavioural consequences. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20133054. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.3054
Karpinski A, Haenniger S, Schoefl G, Heckel DG, Groot AT. 2014. Host plant specialization in the generalist moth Heliothis virescens. Evolutionary Ecology 28:1075–1093. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-014-9723-x
News in Science: "Sexy females help ‘Plain Jane’ moths snag their mates"
BMC series blog: "Too late to date: how differences in mating time may drive a species apart"
New Scientist: "Misschien kiest het vrouwtje wel het lekkerst ruikende mannetje"
Karen is a postdoc fellow in the Origins of Life project "Predicting evolution". She obtained her PhD in 2020 at the University of Groningen (RUG) and Ghent University (UGent). More information on her past and present research projects and publications can be found here.
Thomas is postdoc fellow in the Origins of Life project "Predicting evolution" since January 2021. He obtained his PhD (summa cum laude) at the Humboldt University Berlin in 2016, after which he became postdoc in Kerry Shaw's lab at Cornell. When he was awarded a Marie Curie individual fellowship, he became postdoc in my lab to study the genetic basis of acetate production in Heliothine moths. More information on his past and present research projects and publications can be found here.
Ke conducted his PhD in my lab with a fellowship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) (award no. 201506300162) He graduated in June 2021, after which he continued as postdoc to study the effects of parasite infection on the sexual attraction in moths. His PhD thesis can be found under Alumni below.
Naomi investigates mutual mate choice in moths. That females emit a sex pheromone signal to attract males from a distance is well known, but is that all? Females likely also choose males, and this choice may be based on a male sex pheromone or maybe on different signals. This project is funded by NWO (ALWOP.2015.075) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (award IOS-1456973) with Coby Schal.
Elise's research focuses on the genetic basis of sex pheromone signals in moth, specifically the acetate esters in Heliothine moths. Using CRISPR-cas9, she is functionally characterizing candidate genes that were identified with QTL analysis. She also investigates whether acetates are costly to produce by conducting trade-off experiments. Her research is funded by the IMPRS at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology and the University of Amsterdam.
Renée investigates geographic variation in sexual attraction in the invasive pest Spodoptera frugiperda, the Fall armyworm (FA) in Benin and Kenya. Together with Ahmed Hussain, PhD student at Wageningen University, she aims to develop a sustainable attract-and-infect strategy to control this pest. This project is funded by Dioraphte, Simonis BV and Pherobank, and is in collaboration with icipe and IITA Benin.
Dennis is the moth lab manager. He takes care of all the moth rearings and knows everything there is to know (and more) on moth matings, artificial diets, and what are the optimal circumstances for healthy and genetically diverse rearings.
Dr. Thomas Blankers (Marie Curie individual grant)
Dr. Fotini Koutroumpa (Marie Curie individual grant)
Dr. Jinzhu Xu - visiting postdoc at UvA from Guandong Academy of Forestry, Guanzhou, China
Lotte de Jeu - MSc student
Wout van der Heide - MSc student
Rick de Jong - Aeres Hogeschool student
Mink Amorison - Aeres Hogeschool student
Merlijn van der Ven - BSc student
Thomas Rietbergen - BSc student
Amke JapTjoen - BSc student
Niek Barmentlo - MSc student
Laura Jane Caton - ERASMUS BSc student (academic year 2018 - 2019) (from UK)
Robin Bongers - Van Hall Larenstein student International development management (academic year 2018 - 2019)
Arlet Culhaci - Bioinformatics student Univ Applied Sciences Leiden (acad year 2018 - 2019)
Kevin Peek - BSc student
Elise de Jong - BSc student
Sanne de Witte - BSc student
Robin Moene - BSc student
Alazne Díez Fernández - visiting PhD student from Estación Biológica de Doñana, Spain
Federica Lotito - ERASMUS MSc student (from Italy)
Quynh Dang - MSc student
Kevin Noort - MSc student
Yvonne Kortsmit - MSc student
Daphne Muijderman - BSc student
Sarah Nichols - BSc student
Stefan Boonestro - BSc student
Yoram Goedhart - BSc student
Thomas Bennis - BSc student
Natalie Niepoth - MSc student
Camila Andrea Plata Corredor - Honorary MSc student at RUG
Elianne van der Valk - BSc student
Maud Hulswit - BSc student
Jesse Kerkvliet - Bioinformatics student Univ Applied Sciences Leiden (acad year 2016 - 2017)
Sarai Keestra - BSc student
Melis Yalçin - ERASMUS student from Adnan Menderes University, Aydin, Turkey
Dennis Hoop - BSc student
Estefania Velilla Perdomo - MSc student
Ernesto Villacis Perez - MSc student
Zoe Clement - international student from Agrocampus Ouest, France. Internship at UvA
Claudia Melis - ERASMUS student (from Italy)
Ignaz van Hasselt - MSc student
Laila Kee - MSc student
Florian Winkler - MSc student
Claire Dumenil - MSc student
Orsi Decker – MSc student
Tomasz Przybyłowicz – MSc student
Alex Huiberse – MSc student
Laura Hoekstra - BSc student
Silvia Hondius - ROC student