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Niehuis Lab

Oliver NiehuisProf. Dr. Oliver Niehuis
Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Biodiversity

Albert Ludwig University
Institute of Biology (Zoology)
Hauptstraße 1
D-79104 Freiburg

Room: 1030 (office hours by prior arrangement)
Phone: ++49 / 761 / 203 - 2506
E-Mail: oliver.niehuis@biologie.uni-freiburg.de



Research Interests

Research in my laboratory is focused on elucidating the evolutionary history of insects, particularly adaptations associated with parasitoid and kleptoparasitic life styles and diets. Most research conducted in my lab is highly interdisciplinary, involving aspects of behavioral biology, bioinformatics, chemical ecology, classical genetics, functional morphology, histology, comparative genomics and transcriptomics, phylogenetics, and population genetics. My research group has a modern molecular lab for analyzing DNA/RNA, a chemical lab for studying semiochemicals, and climate-controlled insect rearing facilities.

Current research projects are focused on (but are not restricted to) Hymenoptera (wasps and bees), their phylogeny and genomes, the evolution, biosynthesis, and genetics of semiochemicals, the evolution of sensilla and their chemoreceptors, the evolution of chemical mimicry, and the evolution and proteomics of digestive enzymes. The lab is also deeply involved in the comparative analysis of insect genomes and the development of universally applicable markers for nuclear barcoding of Metazoa.

The evolution of intrasexual cuticular hydrocarbon dimorphism in wasps

Cuticular hydrocarbons are long-chained molecules consisting exclusively of carbon and hydrogen atoms and can include methyl side chains and double bounds. They are found on the cuticle of arthropods and often act as cues and signals (semiochemicals). While sexes often differ in their cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, intrasexual cuticular hydrocarbon polymorphism seems to be very rare. In collaboration with the lab of Prof. Dr. Thomas Schmitt (University of Würzburg), we revealed that females of the spiny mason wasp, Odynerus spinipes (Hymenoptera: Vespidae), are capable of expressing two different cuticular hydrocarbon profiles (chemotypes) that differ substantially (both qualitatively and quantitatively) from each other (Wurdack et al. 2015). Females of O. spinipes that express different chemotypes seemingly do not differ from one another in any other trait. Furthermore, they co-occur, i.e., they live at the same time at the same location. O. spinipes is therefore a promising model for studying the genetics and biosynthesis of cuticular hydrocarbons, the forces driving the evolution of intrasexual dimorphism, and the mechanisms that control the expression of the two observed chemotypes. We are currently applying comparative genomic, transcriptomic, and reverse genetic approaches to identify genes and enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of the cuticular hydrocarbons that differ between the two O. spinipes chemotypes. We further seek to identify the factors that control the expression and frequency of the two chemotypes in nature.



Counter-adaptations of kleptoparasitic and parasitoid wasps and their hosts

Cuckoo wasps are parasitoids and kleptoparasites of diverse hosts, ranging from sawflies and walking sticks to mason wasps, apoid wasps, and mason bees. A few species are even parasitoids of slug moths. The lab seeks to shed light on the fascinating adaptations that cuckoo wasps have evolved to successfully exploit their hosts. These include diverse oviposition strategies as well as chemical mimicry of host odors. The latter may reduce the ability of host wasps to detect cuckoo wasp eggs. In collaboration with the lab of Prof. Dr. Thomas Schmitt (University of Würzburg), we revealed that a wide range of cuckoo wasps apply a chemical mimicry strategy despite having to de novo synthesize a complex cuticular hydrocarbon profile very similar to that of their distantly related hosts.

Chrysis Fasciata



Evolutionary history of hexapods with focus on Hymenoptera

Knowledge of phylogenetic relationships and divergence times is fundamental for comparative analyses. We collaborate broadly to help develop and apply a wide range of wet lab and bioinformatic tools to infer or critically assess phylogenetic hypotheses. Most of our work is focused on the analysis of phylogenomic and genomic data sets (e.g., DNA target enrichment, RNA-seq, and genome skimming data; genomic meta-characters in de novo-assembled draft genomes) of hexapods, especially Hymenoptera. We participate in the international 1KITE project. Past and current projects deal with the phylogeny of Apoidea (Sann et al. 2018), Chalcidoidea (Peters et al. 2018), Chrysididae (Pauli et al. in prep.), Coccinellidae (Escalona et al. 2017), Coleoptera (backbone; McKenna et al. in prep.), Dytiscoidea (Vasilikopoulos et al. 2019), Hexapods (backbone; Misof et al. 2014), Hymenoptera (backbone; Peters et al. 2017), Ichneumonidae (Klopfstein et al. 2019), Polyneoptera (Wipfler et al. 2019), and Strepsiptera (phylogenetic position; Niehuis et al. 2012). Hymenoptera phylogeny

Comparative analysis of hexapod genomes

Comparative analysis of insect genomes is a powerful approach to shed light on genomic acquisitions that provided species and their descendants the means to exploit their specific life styles. The lab is involved in, or leads, various de novo whole genome sequencing projects dealing with apterygote and pterygote insects and with Holometabola in particular. The lab also participates in the international i5K initiative. A major line of research in the lab focuses on the evolution of gene families that are relevant to interactions with the environment, such as genes families required for chemoperception, digestion, and the biosynthesis of semiochemicals. Examples of past and current genome projects involving the lab are: the parasitoid wasps Leptopilina clavipes (Kraaijeveld et al. 2016) and Nasonia vitripennis (Werren et al. 2010), the red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus; Smith et al. 2011), the twisted wing parasite (Mengenilla moldrzyki; Niehuis et al. 2012), the damselfly Calopteryx splendens (Ioannidis et al. 2017), the dragonfly Ladona fulva (Thomas et al. in prep.), the sawflies Athalia rosae and Orussus abietinus (Oeyen et al. in prep.), and the diplurans Campodea augens and Catajapyx aquilonaris (Thomas et al. in prep.; Manni et al. in prep.).


Comparative genomics light






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