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Guillaume Chomicki

Professor and NERC & ERC-UKRI fellow

Professor and NERC & ERC-UKRI fellow in the Department of Biosciences


I graduated with a BSc in Plant Sciences from the University of Manchester (2012) and subsequently did a PhD at the University of Munich (awarded in 2016), supervised by Prof. Susanne Renner, where I started to work on ant/plant symbioses as model systems in mutualism evolution. Continuing to work ant/plant symbioses (among other things), I did a short postdoc in Munich, then a Glasstone Research fellowship and Junior Research fellowship at Queen’s college, at Oxford, and subsequently started my group on a NERC fellowship in Durham, shortly in Sheffield and then back in Durham. I am also visiting researcher at Kunming Botanic Gardens (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Recent and ongoing projects

• ‘BREAKDOWN: The regulation of breakdown of cooperation among specie’ ERC-funded (now EPSRC/UKRI) (2023-2028)
• ‘The drivers of major transitions in mutualistic dependence’. NERC (2019-2026)
• ‘Deciphering the 3-million year old ‘air conditioning’ mechanism in a Fijian obligate ant/plant farming mutualism’. National Geographics (2017-2021)
• ‘The evolution and domestication of multiple crop species in the watermelon genus Citrullus’. DFG (2018-2021)

Research Interests

Evolution and ecology of mutualisms
Why do mutualistic partnerships evolve, and what causes them to breakdown? My research uses field experiments, comparative genomics and transcriptomics, CT-scanning based 3D imaging and phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate how mutualisms evolve across the tree of life. We explore the formation, stabilization, and breakdown of mutualism in a species-rich clade of plants forming nutritional and defensive symbioses with ants as well as using large-scale trait datasets and phylogenies in multiple mutualisms across vascular plants. Recent insights include the finding that specialized parasites did not evolve from mutualistic ancestors (Proceedings B 2015), that generalist and facultative mutualisms break down more easily than obligate ones (PNAS 2017, Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst 2020); obligate mutualisms are more efficient (New Phytol 2019), offer greater rewards to their partners (New Phytol 2016), and their interaction-related traits are under strong stabilizing selection (PNAS 2017, TREE 2019).

Origins and evolution of agriculture in insects and humans
The gradual shift from hunting and gathering to plant cultivation and animal husbandry started globally at the boundary between the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene some 12,000-11,000 years ago, and is one of the most important transition in human history, allowing the development of our modern cultures. But agriculture has evolved much earlier in several lineages across the tree of life. ‘Primitive’ farming mutualisms are found in amoeba, fungus or deep-sea crab that cultivate bacteria, and damselfish, or sloth farming algae. The most sophisticated agricultures, sharing a number of aspects with our human agriculture includes fungiculture by ants, termites and ambrosia beetles. I discovered the first obligate agriculture of plants by ants (Nature Plants 2016). I am interested in the convergences between human and non-human agriculture and work specifically in two areas: the origin and domestication of the watermelon and related crops in the Cucurbitaceae (watermelon and more recently melon), and plant farming by ants, including generalist ant-gardens and obligate, highly specialised Fijian farming symbioses involving the ant Philidris nagasau that farm Squamellaria. Recently, I discovered that Fijian ant farmers have evolved strategies to optimize crop yield and mitigate tradeoffs between different crop requirements (PNAS 2020). We use systematics, ancient DNA analysis and phylogenomics to decipher the origin and domestication of crops in Citrullus, and field ecology, phylogenies, metabolomics, and transcriptomics and comparative genomics to dissect the evolution and functioning of ant/plant farming mutualism. Recent findings include the sequencing of a Linnean specimen that led to the correction of a century-long taxonomic error on which the origin of the watermelon was based (New Phytol 2015), the discovery of the closest relative and potential progenitor of the watermelon (PNAS 2021) and the sequencing of the oldest plant genome pointing to the cultivation of a watermelon relative for its seeds rather than its flesh, 6000 years ago in Libya (Mol Biol Evol 2022).

Evolution of plant functional morphology
Morphology is often uncorrelated to relatedness with related species sometimes looking entirely different and species far apart looking the same. While the genetic basis of morphological novelty is becoming increasingly well understood, the rules governing morphological change at a macroevolutionary level are not well characterised. My work has shown that shifts in mutualism strategies, such as specialisation or breakdown, are important drivers of morphology in interaction-related traits (PNAS 2017). My work on the evolution of morphology is threefold. First, I am interested in the evolution of plant morphology, and in particular plant architecture, notably in the context of crop domestication and (past) climate change. Second, I am interested to develop a coherent framework to understand morphological evolution at a macroevolutionary level. Third, I collaborate with physicists, engineers and mathematicians to understand the function of plant structure in a symbiotic context, notably in the context of temperature regulation in plant domatia housing symbiotic ants. This involves a mix of morphological and anatomical work, functional morphology, CT-scanning, architectural analysis, modelling, together with phylogenetic comparative methods. Finally, I am interested in the origin of complex composite traits, and use diverse models such as Nepenthes carnivorous plants to trace their origins.


Journal Article

Supervision students