‘There are Direct Connections with Human Development’: Stickleback Conference Sheds Light on Human Genetics Skip to content

‘There are Direct Connections with Human Development’: Stickleback Conference Sheds Light on Human Genetics

By Larissa Kyzer

Photo: D Ross Robertson, CC 3.0.

The 10th International Conference on Stickleback Behaviour and Evolution was held at the University of Hólar in North Iceland this week. RÚV reports that the stickleback is one of the most researched fish in the world and has led to significant advances in the fields of both ethology, the science of animal behaviour, and genetics. Research on stickleback behaviour laid the foundation for modern behavioural science, even earning Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen a Nobel Prize in 1973.

The Stickleback Conference made its triumphant return after a long hiatus due to COVID-19. The last conference took place in Kyoto, Japan, in 2018. The turnout was good for this year’s five-day event at Hólar: 70 scientists from around the world gathered to share their research. Professor Bjarni Kristofer Kristjánsson said those gathered only scratched the surface of what they could potentially discuss when it comes to the small, but fascinating fish.

“The stickleback is one of the most researched fish in the world, and there are many reasons for that,” he said. “Essentially, people in behavioural studies have been really interested in them. They’ve got interesting reproductive behaviour. The male fish dances before spawning and builds a nest and becomes really colourful and manifests really strong behavioural patterns.”

Illustration of the threespine stickleback. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, CC 2.0.

Sticklebacks are also ideal research subjects because they are easy to raise in tanks and selectively breed, which is very useful when conducting experiments.

“[The stickleback] has opened up a number of avenues [for us] to try and understand,” said Bjarni. “Like the development and evolution of vertebrates. We are vertebrates, of course, so there are direct connections with human development.”

Bjarni says that sticklebacks are central to a wide range of diverse research, which is part of why the conference is so much fun.

“You might hear lectures from ecologists or parasitologists. Then there’ll be some lectures about the genome and the development of the Y chromosome.”

Indeed, the conference schedule was quite varied including talks on paternal care in threespine sticklebacks, developmental plasticity in eco-evolutionary population dynamics, “evolutionary ménage a trois,” personality-dependent colonization success, Molecular mechanisms of adaptation to freshwater, biological memory of climate variability and extreme events, foraging niche and diet variation, positive selection throughout regulatory elements on the threespine stickleback Y chromosome, “a stickleback approach to human genetic evolution,” and much more.

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