New professor on board for the Thriving Nature Program – meet Frédéric Guillaume

Professor in Ecological and Evolutionary Dynamics, Frédéric Guillaume is an evolutionary biologist, trained as a theoretical population and quantitative geneticist. Professor Guillaume focuses on how ecology influences evolution, and vice versa, in any taxa. His current research is at the interface of ecology, genetics and evolutionary theory. Guilleaume joined the Thriving Nature program, and the University, on 1 January 2021.

Professor Frédéric Guillaume uses a diverse set of research tools and approaches from large scale computer simulations to genomics and transcriptomics in an experimental setting with the model insect species Tribolium castaneum (the red flour beetle).

“It was important to me that I could develop this full scientific research agenda, from developing theory to designing experiments to test the theory and uncover meaningful patterns. I am happy I achieved it. Securing a permanent professor position in Helsinki will give me the stability I need to further pursue my research agenda,” Guillaume says.

Passion for nature

Guillaume remembers assembling his first insect collection at the age of 11. He then spent his whole summer holidays trapping beetles in the countryside around his family house, sometimes venturing several kilometers away from home in a day, catching everything he could. Back home, he would identify the species and pinch his bounty on a styrofoam board with the species name tag “like in the museum”.

“I even got a price at school for my achievement. I then turned to more geeky occupations and became passionate about computers and programming. It is during my masters and then PhD that I could join my two passions and build computer programs to study biology. I have never stopped since, now even using beetles as model organism in the lab. I always loved beetles, probably more than flies, or other insects!” Guillaume looks back.

Species’ vulnerability to global changes and more

In the lab, Guillaume’s research group studies how species adapt to their environment, and focuses on how the genetics of adaptation affect the capacity of species to cope with environmental changes. One objective is to help assess species’ vulnerability to global changes. To do so, Guillaume’s research group developed eco-evolutionary dynamics models that integrate ecological and evolutionary properties of species, such as their demographic, dispersal, and life-history characteristics together with their evolutionary capacity to adapt to new conditions. According to Guillaume it is a challenging endeavor because this approach requires vast amounts of data. Fortunately, many initiatives are being developed now to collect data on species’ ecological niches, geographical ranges, interactions, and gathered in open databases. Some of them are actually being developed in Finland right now.

“It is thus an exciting time to move to Helsinki and connect with local researchers. On the evolutionary side, the amount of genomic data collected in natural populations has also dramatically increased recently and will provide key information on the genetics of adaptation in space across multiple environments,” Guillaume says.

The aim of the group’s eco-evolutionary modeling approach is the integration of those ecological and evolutionary data in a single simulation framework to better forecast species’ range shifts under climate change and species’ capacity to persist in changing environments.

“This integration is awaited, and we have shown that it provides a key assessment tool for species vulnerability. We will strive to make our tool more efficient and accessible. For now, we model individuals in the millions with their genetics, life cycle, interactions with other individuals from the same or different species, within populations in small regional landscapes. For this, we have developed a set of computer simulation tools, namely Nemo and Nemo-age. This approach is extremely greedy of computational resources, for which I am happy to have access to the Finnish CSC - IT center for science. It also provides the best possible benchmark for future developments where we will simplify our approach and scale it to continents and multiple species interacting in species networks. We will keep the CSC computers busy in the years to come!” explains Guillaume.

According to Guillaume it is important to understand how species may resist climate and other global changes imposed by human activities. The resilience of natural species to further perturbations of their habitat, being because of climate warming or habitat fragmentation, will determine the world in which we will live tomorrow, and in centuries to come. Understanding the determinants of eco-evolutionary dynamics will allow us to assess which species are most at risk of extinction and where. Communicating these findings with stakeholders and the general public will hopefully help shape future conservation policies.

Loss of biodiversity caused by human-induced global changes – integrated research needed

“What excites me most is the integration of different fields of research, especially ecology and evolutionary biology, to respond to the challenges we are facing: the loss of biodiversity caused by human-induced global changes. I hope this integration will help us have a more holistic view of the questions we are asking,” says Guillaume.

However, integrating different fields, such as evolutionary genetics and community ecology for instance, is challenging according to Guillaume because the questions each field asks have been isolated historically and studied separately, without much crosstalk between disciplines until recently. It is also challenging because the researchers have to develop new analysis tools to integrate, for instance, genomic and ecological data in a single framework. This is another important and exciting part of Guillaume’s future work where his group will try to develop new computational approaches to enable this integration, both theoretically and as predictive tools

Thriving Nature program

“I am excited to be part of this program because it will give more visibility to the questions we all address. But, most of all, it will also allow me to link my research with others’ and develop new collaborations. It is clear to me that to address the pressing question of biological resilience in face of global change, we need concerted efforts across disciplines. One lab, or even one single field of research will not make significant progress alone. I hope the Program will make such efforts possible,” sums Guillaume up.

Guillaume started with a part-time contract in the beginning of 2021 until end of June 2021, while still working at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is part of the Organismal and Evolutionary Biology research program. His family’s definitive move to Helsinki will take place in July 2021.