Quote of the Month

"If a man has learnt to know a thing in itself, and in its relation to surrounding phenomena, he has got from a University what it is its proper duty to teach." - Thomas Carlyle (1866).


Welcome to the Eckert Lab located in the Department of Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University. We are a plant evolutionary genomics lab. Research topics range from the dissection of adaptive plant phenotypes into their genetic components to inferences of genome-wide patterns of polymorphism, divergence and natural selection. Current focal points of research are:

Genetic Architecture of Adaptation

How do woody plants adapt to their environments? What are the genes that facilitate this process? How are these genes organized within the genomes of woody plants? We try to answer these questions using a variety of approaches ranging from population genetic surveys of natural populations to association genetic dissection of complex phenotypes. The unifying theme underlying all of these approaches is the discovery of the genetic basis of adaptive plant phenotypes.

Statistical Methods and Adaptation

Standing patterns of genetic diversity result from the interplay of several population genetic processes, such as natural selection, genetic drift and migration. When methods developed to identify these processes are used in a hypothesis testing framework, however, they do not often exhaustively divide the sample space into mutually incompatible outcomes; so that rejection of one hypothesis, a null hypothesis for example, does not necessarily imply that the alternative is true or even likely. The reason is that several different processes can individually, as well as jointly, result in the same patterns. It is prudent, therefore, to utilize a range of methods that each examines different aspects of the standing patterns of genetic diversity. Recently we have begun collaborating with Rodney Dyer and his lab to examine the use of his measure of conditional genetic covariance, in combination with high-throughput SNP genotyping data, to infer patterns of natural selection across genomes.

Phylogeography and Adaptation

The woody plant flora of North America is composed of a fascinating diversity of species. We use a variety of phylogeographic, biogeographic and phylogenetic approaches with which to understand the origin and diversification of species comprising this flora. Our approaches tend to be hypothesis driven where multiple competing hypotheses are proposed and the best one(s) is/are chosen using some form of statistical model selection. This is also important because divergence history confounds the ability to identify adaptive genetic variants.

Below you will find news and events. Links to specific lab personnel are listed on the left. You can find personal webpages by clicking on the picture of the person.

News in the Lab

There is always something exciting happening in the Eckert lab.

05-Apr-2017: Brandon Lind has published his first paper about the polygenic basis of local adaptation across populations of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) located in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Check it out at Molecular Ecology.

01-Apr-2017: Dr. Justin Bagley has started as the newest postdoctoral scholar in the Eckert lab.

27-Nov-2016: Madison Glackin, an undergraduate researcher in the lab, recently was selected to participate in the Panama Avian Field Ecology Study Abroad course at VCU. Congratulations, Madison!

Winter 2016 (11/26/2016)

Figure from our new paper in progress

Winter is almost here. It has been several years since I have found the time to update websites. As you might guess, much has happened. Some of it good. Some of it bad. I have married a wonderful woman named Erin. We have a new and awesome baby boy named Charlie. Members of the lab have come and gone. The VCU administration has turned over once or twice, with all the wonderful topsy-turvy leadership of new, and rather bloated, administrations trying to prove they actually do something resembling supporting research, teaching and service. Teaching duties have ramped up to unbelievable and unsupported levels. Constant throughout all of this change, however, has been the research progress made in the
lab. We have received multiple
 rounds of funding from federal agencies and private foundations. New students have joined the lab. Many papers have been published. New collaborations have been forged.  Tenure has been applied for and hopefully received in the near future. My hope for the upcoming new year is that the rather disgusting politics of the VCU administration will stop overshadowing those of us trying to accomplish the goals of a public university - research, teaching and service. I know the people in my lab are doing their parts to make VCU great. Let's hope the same can be said of the new leadership. 

Spring 2014 (01/29/2014)

A single-tree linkage map

The spring semester has finally begun. Members of the lab are off and running on their respective projects. Grants are being applied for and papers are being written. Life could not be better.

Chris has begun his sample collections for his NSF funded postdoctoral fellowship and has already contributed to several projects in the lab. These projects range from production of genotype data from RADseq libraries to analysis of data for linkage map construction to association genetics of dispersal traits for gypsy moths. 
Brandon is busily preparing for his qualifying exam and defense of his dissertation proposal. In his spare time he is working on spatial patterns of seedling occurrences at Teakettle.

Ethan is busily adjusting to graduate school, preparing his thesis project, and starting analysis of phenotype data for his thesis about the genetic architecture of water-use efficiency in foxtail pine. 

Erin is doing just about everything, but is working especially hard on getting the RADseq libraries for gypsy moth prepared. This is also Erin's last full semester. She is off to a MD/Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech later in the year. We are all happy for her, but will be lost for awhile.

Quercus-Umbellularia woodlands in the hills of Napa, CA
As for me, I drink coffee in my office and watch all of these hard working young folk put me to shame.

As usual, the Eckert lab is looking for graduate students, especially MS students interested in genomics or ecological genetics. Please contact me if you are interested. Funding for VCU M.S. students is quite reasonable.

Fall is in the Air (08/26/2013)

3.4 MY old pine
After a wonderful summer with my beautiful daughters (see pictures), I am back into the swing of things in Richmond. The Fall semester of 2013 has started off with a growing lab. Two new members have joined the Eckert lab: Chris Friedline (NSF Postdoctoral Fellow) and Ethan Harwood (VCU M.S. student). Chris will be tackling questions related to fire adaptation among southeastern pines. He obtained three years worth of funding through a NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology. Ethan will be mapping quantitative trait loci related to water use efficiency for foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana). This work is occurring in collaboration with Dr. Patricia Maloney and utilizes a large-scale linkage map for this species currently being generated from next-generation sequencing data.
Sunset at Glacier Point
Sunset at Glacier Point
In other news, Brandon Lind has been working hard to finish up his field sampling at the Teakettle Experimental Forest. He also managed to collect a few foxtail pine samples on recent hike across the Sierra Nevada crest.  These samples will help assess local allele frequencies for QTLs discovered by Ethan. In addition, more than a few papers are finally being finished, so please stay tuned for a whole slew of published research from this lab.

Spring 2013 Update (02/16/2013)

River art
The semester began with attendance at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference XXI, which was held in San Diego, California. We presented some initial data about the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida L.) genome, met a number of wonderful new people, and caught up with old friends. After returning from San Diego, classes at VCU started. This semester I am co-teaching BIOL 691: Genomics and Phylogenetics with Dr. Maria Rivera and BIOL 693: Ecological Genomics. Grant season was also upon lab, with two NSF preliminary proposals and a Jeffress Memorial Trust grant application being submitted in January alone. More submissions are also in the works, as the NSF IOS PGRP is due in March.
Beautiful colors
     The students in the lab have also been busy. Brandon has started to generate genome-wide data for his two focal species: Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi Balf.) and sugar pine (P. lambertiana Douglas). In addition, Brandon, Erin, and Camille have been preparing multiplexed RADseq libraries for sequencing of foxtail pine (P. balfouriana Grev. & Balf.) megagametophyte arrays. Undergraduate research projects are also moving along well. Erin is busily examining genomic regions in lodgepole pine (P. contorta Douglas) that are physically linked to those identified by Parchman et al. (2012, Molecular Ecology 21: 2991-3005) as associated with cone serotiny. Camille has immersed herself in the RADseq library constructions for foxtail pine, and Ryan has busily been working on simulations of gene trees and species trees where the species are experiencing gene flow, demographic changes, and natural selection. It definitely is an exciting time in the lab!
Richmond at night
    Several papers have been published, are in review, or are on the verge of submission. The opinion piece about landscape genomics for forest trees has finally been accepted at Tree Genetics and Genomes, while several papers addressing adaptive evolution in various Pinus species and gene expression associations are in review. On the horizon are papers about the ecological genetics of sugar pine, the effects of sulfate deposition on red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) populations, and a new method for detection of putatively adaptive genomic regions.
    The next several months will be busy, but please do not hesitate to contact me with inquires about joining the lab. Happy spring semester!