Margo Maex (Vrije universiteit Brussel) wins the AllGenetics-EMPSEB Award 2014

The talk ‘Side by side secretion of Late paleozoic diverged courtship pheromones in an aquatic salamander’ has been selected as the best work presented in the EMPSEB meeting this year.

Margo Maex is a PhD student at the Amphibian Evolution Lab (Vrije universiteit Brussel) who, in her own words, has a very inquisitive nature and a passion for all living organisms. Margo started studying Biology at the Universiteit Antwerpen in 2007. After earning her MSc degree in Biology, she received a personal PhD grant from the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek – Vlaanderen in 2013. This grant allowed her to conduct research on amphibian chemical communication and study the evolution of courtship pheromones in salamanders. Margo’s work involves the use of phylogenetic reconstructions and structural comparisons to determine the degree of differentiation, duplication events and polymorphism in pheromones.

The commitee of the 20th edition of the EMPSEB meeting, which was held in La Roche en Ardenne (Belgium), selected Margo’s work as the best one presented at the conference this year. The EMPSEB meetings take place in a different European town each year and are organised by current PhD students in that country. The meeting provides a platform for PhD students studying Evolutionary Biology to present their work and to meet their peers from all over Europe. Since 2011 the AllGenetics-EMPSEB Award is conferred to the best work presented at the meeting. The prize consists in a one-week holiday for six people at The Farm Cottage (Galicia, Spain). The AllGenetics-EMPSEB Award has been won by Mareike Wurdack (Universität Freiburg) in 2012 and by Pepijn Kamminga (Universiteit Leiden) in 2013.

This is the abstract of Margo’s talk:

Males of advanced salamanders (Salamandroidea) are unique among vertebrates in having internal fertilization without copulation. Instead, sperm is transferred via an external spermatophore, which females take up with their cloaca. Since a successful transfer of sperm relies on a female following the male track at spermatophore deposition, males have evolved courtship displays to increase the probability of females picking up the sperm. In the aquatically reproducing modern Eurasian newts (Salamandridae), males additionally do not longer display physical contact, but instead largely rely on emitting chemosignals to the female during courtship. Despite the acknowledged importance of pheromones during salamandrid courtship, molecules able to induce the female following behaviour have not been identified yet. Here, we isolated and experimentally tested protein pheromones of the Sodefrin Precursor-like Factor (SPF) family that are secreted in the water during courtship and demonstrate that they can elicit female courtship responses in newts. Phylogenetic analyses of pheromone-encoding transcripts reveal a Late Paleozoic duplication event and imply an early onset of SPF diversification at about 300 million years ago. The simultaneous secretion of early diverged courtship proteins in a single species suggests that these molecules already gained a courtship function in early salamander evolution that has been conserved in multiple salamander lineages ever since.