Technical Officer

  • $69,522 – $79,857 pa, plus 9.5% employer superannuation (HEW level 5)
  • Full-time
  • 12-month fixed-term appointment
  • Monash University, Clayton campus

The Centre for Geometric Biology and the Marine Evolutionary Ecology Group within the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University are seeking a Technical Officer to assist in a variety of research and administration tasks within these groups.

As the successful candidate you will be responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the lab including the maintenance of two long-term evolution experiments. You will have experience in maintaining aquatic organisms in laboratory settings while experience with phytoplankton cultures will be an advantage. Experience in running field ecology experiments in aquatic environments will also be highly regarded as travel to field sites and monitoring and maintaining field experiments will be required. Data mining projects will require familiarity with systematic literature review protocols coupled with a high level of computer literacy, including demonstrated experience in learning and adopting new software packages as required.

You will be required to take an active role in problem solving during research projects and for that reason we strongly encourage BSc Honours graduates in Ecology or Evolutionary Biology to apply.

Key selection criteria

  1. a tertiary qualification in ecology; or substantial relevant skills and work experience; or an equivalent combination of relevant experience and/or education/training
  2. Experience in maintaining aquatic organisms in laboratory settings and experience in aquatic fieldwork
  3. Sound analytical, technical and data analysis skills and a demonstrated capacity to apply effective technical methods, processes and systems
  4. Strong organisational skills, including the ability to set priorities, manage time and plan work to meet deadlines
  5. Ability to develop basic operating procedures and provide oversight, guidance and training in relation to technical processes and use of specialised equipment
  6. Ability to work as an effective member of a team as well as independently under general supervision
  7. Strong attention to detail and accuracy and ability to adhere to protocols, standards and guidelines, including ethical research principles as required
  8. Well-developed communication skills, including the ability to draft a range of documentation
  9. Experience with research or laboratory technology including equipment and software or a demonstrated ability to quickly adapt to and learn new systems

Enquiries to Professor Dustin Marshall on +61 3 9902 4449

Closing date: 11:55 pm AEST, Tuesday 1 June 2021

For more information, or to apply, refer to the Monash University website.

Plastic responses to changes in environment are not necessarily adaptive

Phenotypic plasticity is a term familiar to evolutionary biologists. It refers to the ability of an organism to respond to a changing environment by changing its physical properties – its phenotype. For example, metabolic rate changes with temperature and resource availability.

We usually assume that such changes are adaptive, that is, changes are in the same direction as selection and so will increase the fitness (reproductive output) of the organism in that environment. But, importantly, we don’t usually test for the adaptive significance of phenotypic plasticity because we don’t typically estimate selection in different environments when we assess plasticity.

Lukas Schuster and his supervisors, Craig White and Dustin Marshall, used the model species Bugula neritina to investigate whether changes in metabolic rates in response to different field environments are an example of adaptive phenotypic plasticity. To their surprise they found that, while Bugula exhibited plasticity in metabolic rate, it was not adaptive.

Bugula is a small filter feeding colonial bryozoan that is often found on the undersides of piers. It is also found on vertical surfaces such as pier pilings, although the increased UV radiation and sedimentation experienced on vertical surfaces combine to make this a more stressful living environment.

Lukas collected mature colonies of Bugula from the field and then spawned them in the laboratory and settled the larvae onto small acetate sheets. This allowed Lukas to deploy the Bugula on vertically or horizontally suspended panels (corresponding to harsh and benign environments respectively) and to return colonies to the laboratory to measure metabolic rates. They did two experimental runs to test the consistency of the results.

As a first step, Lukas and his supervisors had to determine how selection on metabolic rate varies across harsh and benign environments. In other words, they needed to establish the relationship between metabolic rate and reproductive output (fitness) in each environment.

They deployed newly settled Bugula to a common, benign environment for three weeks before returning these colonies to the laboratory to measure metabolic rates. Half of the colonies were then deployed into the harsh environment and half was kept in the benign environment. Growth, survival and lifetime reproductive output were then tracked for each colony; this allowed the team to determine whether there was any fitness advantage associated with particular metabolic rates in each environment.

Surprisingly, they found no differences in selection on metabolic rates in the two environments. Instead, in one experimental run, they found evidence that smaller individuals with lower metabolic rates and larger individuals with higher metabolic rates went on to produce more offspring in both environments. This suggests that metabolic rate is unlikely to evolve independently of other traits.

To measure plasticity Lukas returned all colonies to the laboratory to measure metabolic rates for a second time. Colonies from the harsh environment had overall lower metabolic rates compared to colonies from the benign environment.

In the first experimental run the team found that smaller individuals with lower metabolic rates and larger individuals with higher metabolic rates went on to produce more offspring (red areas in graph) regardless of the environment they were in.
In the first experimental run the team found that smaller individuals with lower metabolic rates and larger individuals with higher metabolic rates went on to produce more offspring (red areas in graph) regardless of the environment they were in.

Given the strong and consistent metabolic response to the different environments that the team observed, it would have been tempting to infer that such a response increases fitness. While this seems intuitive, it is not consistent with what they know about selection on metabolic rate in the different environments. There was no difference in the relationship between metabolic rates and reproductive outputs in the two environments and so, although the changes they saw in metabolic rate with environment show that metabolic rate is plastic, their results show that such plasticity is not always adaptive.

Lukas and his supervisors emphasise the importance of assessing selection on a trait in the different environments before assuming that ‘plastic’ responses to different environments are necessarily adaptive. Instead, metabolic plasticity may merely represent a passive response due to correlations with other traits or there may be limits to physiological plasticity due to biochemical constraints. Nonetheless, further studies are needed in order to understand the drivers and consequences of metabolic plasticity in the field.

This research was published in the journal Oikos.

Geographical bias in physiological data limits predictions of global change impacts

Authors: Craig R White, Dustin J Marshall, Steven L Chown, Susana Clusella‐Trullas, Steven J Portugal, Craig E Franklin and Frank Seebacher

Published in: Functional Ecology


Climate affects all aspects of biology. Physiological traits play a key role in mediating these effects, because they define the fundamental niche of each organism.

Climate change is likely to shift environmental conditions away from physiological optima. The consequences for species are significant: they must alter their physiology through plasticity or adaptation, move, or decline to extinction. The ability to understand and predict such organismal responses to global change is, however, only as good as the geographical coverage of the data on which these predictions are based.

Geographical biases in the state of physiological knowledge have been identified, but it has not been determined if these geographical biases are likely to limit our capacity to predict the outcomes of global change. We show that current knowledge of physiological traits is representative of only a limited range of the climates in which terrestrial animals will be required to operate, because data for animals from only a limited range of global climates have been incorporated in existing compilations.

We conclude that geographical bias in existing datasets limits our capacity to predict organismal responses in the vast areas of the planet that are unstudied, and that this geographical bias is a much greater source of uncertainty than the difference between the current climate and the projected future climate. Addressing this bias is urgent to understand where impacts will be most profound, and where the need for intervention is most pressing.

White CR, Marshall DJ, Chown SL, Clusella‐Trullas S, Portugal SJ, Franklin CE, Seebacher F (2021) Geographical bias in physiological data limits predictions of global change impacts. Functional Ecology PDF DOI

Plastic but not adaptive: habitat‐driven differences in metabolic rate despite no differences in selection between habitats

Authors: Lukas Schuster, Craig R White, and Dustin J Marshall

Published in: Oikos


Metabolic plasticity in response to different environmental conditions is widespread across taxa. It is reasonable to expect that such plasticity should be adaptive, but only few studies have determined the adaptive significance of metabolic plasticity by formally estimating selection on metabolic rate under different environmental conditions.

We used a model marine colonial invertebrate, Bugula neritina to examine selection on metabolic rate in a harsh and a benign environment in the field, then tested whether these environments induced the expression of different metabolic phenotypes. We conducted two experimental runs and found evidence for positive correlational selection on the combination of metabolic rate and colony size in both environments in one run, whereas we could not detect any selection on metabolic rate in the second run.

Even though there was no evidence for different selection regimes in the different environments, colonies expressed different metabolic phenotypes depending on the environment they experienced. Furthermore, there was no relationship between the degree of plasticity expressed by an individual and their subsequent fitness.

In other words, we found evidence for phenotypic plasticity in metabolic rate, but there was no evidence that this plasticity was adaptive. In the absence of estimates of performance, changes in metabolic rate should not be assumed to be adaptive.

Schuster L, White CR, Marshall DJ (2021) Plastic but not adaptive: habitat‐driven differences in metabolic rate despite no differences in selection between habitats. Oikos PDF DOI

Multilevel selection on offspring size and the maintenance of variation

Authors: Hayley Cameron, Darren W Johnson, Keyne Monro, and Dustin J Marshall

Published in: The American Naturalist


Multilevel selection on offspring size occurs when offspring fitness depends on both absolute size (hard selection) and size relative to neighbors (soft selection).

We examined multilevel selection on egg size at two biological scales — within clutches and among clutches from different females — using an external fertilizing tube worm. We exposed clutches of eggs to two sperm environments (limiting and saturating) and measured their fertilization success. We then modeled environmental (sperm-dependent) differences in hard and soft selection on individual eggs as well as selection on clutch-level traits (means and variances).

Hard and soft selection differed in strength and form depending on sperm availability—hard selection was consistently stabilizing; soft selection was directional and favored eggs relatively larger (sperm limitation) or smaller (sperm saturation) than the clutch mean. At the clutch level, selection on mean egg size was largely concave, while selection on within-clutch variance was weak but generally negative—although some correlational selection occurred between these two traits. Importantly, we found that the optimal clutch mean egg size differed for mothers and offspring, suggesting some antagonism between the levels of selection.

We thus identify several pathways that may maintain offspring size variation: environmentally (sperm-) dependent soft selection, antagonistic multilevel selection, and correlational selection on clutch means and variances.

Multilevel approaches are powerful but seldom-used tools for studies of offspring size, and we encourage their future use.

Cameron H, Johnson DW, Monro K, Marshall DJ (2021) Multilevel selection on offspring size and the maintenance of variation. The American Naturalist PDF DOI

Female advantage to heat stress is negated by exposure to a pathogen

Increasing temperatures are not the only changes we can expect with future climate. The prevalence of infectious disease is also predicted to increase. The persistence of organisms will depend not only on their thermal tolerance but also how well they fight infection. Not all individuals do both these things well.

Males and females differ in many characteristics, from body size to behaviour, and it may be that each sex will also vary in how well they cope with both thermal stress and infection. Yet this question has been neglected up until now. Tess Laidlaw and her colleagues have used a model system to address this gap. In their system they found that females had a higher upper limit of thermal tolerance than males but, when infected with a pathogen, this difference disappeared.

The model system consists of a small aquatic crustacean, Daphnia magna and a common bacterial pathogen, Pastueria ramosa. Using multiple host and pathogen strains, the team exposed Daphnia to one of the pathogens or left them unexposed as controls. They then subjected male and female Daphnia from the different treatments to acute heat stress that is lethal to the animals and recorded the time to immobilisation – known as the knockdown time. Knockdown times measure the capacity of an individual to avoid physical incapacitation during temperature extremes and are a common measure of assessing thermal limits.

They weren’t surprised to find that females were more heat resistant than males. Sexual differences in heat tolerance have been found in other species, and the teams’ findings were consistent with differences in knockdown times for Daphnia collected from a range of latitudes. The greater tolerance of female Daphnia to heat stress is important because females invest more in their offspring. This means that population growth is likely to be more strongly linked to female survival than male survival.

Once infected however, any advantage the females demonstrated in tolerating heat stress was lost. Knockdown times in males and females were now markedly similar. Tess and her colleagues have shown how the introduction of a pathogen can potentially negate any buffer that the higher thermal limits of females provide for a population.

For the two different strains of the host Daphnia magna females showed more resistance to heat than males. But once infected with a pathogen there was little difference in knockdown times between males and females.

This research was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Hot spots on the X chromosome? Testing a classic theory of sexual antagonism

Biologists have long been interested in sexually antagonistic selection, in which the genetic variants that provide an advantage for one sex are disadvantageous for the other. Sexual antagonism is important because it helps maintain genetic variation and represents one of several ways in which populations might remain maladapted with respect to their environments.

In 1984, a theoretical prediction was proposed by William Rice that said the X chromosome should be a ‘hot spot’ for sexually antagonistic genetic polymorphism. His mathematical models indicated that sexually antagonistic alleles were more likely to remain polymorphic when they were linked to the X chromosome than when they were on other types of chromosomes (i.e., autosomes). Rice’s prediction that polymorphism is easier to maintain on the X chromosome critically depends on the dominance relations between sexually antagonistic alleles. Other researchers have shown that the autosomes are more conducive to maintaining genetic variation under conditions that differ from Rice’s assumptions.

There have been numerous empirical studies that have demonstrated apparent support for Rice’s theory. But Filip Ruzicka and Tim Connallon argue that these studies share a common but incorrect assumption: that signals from sexually antagonistic genetic variation are equally detectable whether the variation is on sex chromosomes (ie X-linked) or on autosomes.

Instead, Filip and Tim found that the existing methods for testing this classic theory are all biased towards finding signals of sexually antagonistic variation on the X chromosome. They developed mathematical models to test how much X chromosomes and autosomes contributed to signals of sexual antagonism and found a considerable bias in existing studies.

When they revisited the experimental studies using their models, they found that most of them were actually consistent with scenarios in which the X chromosome is not a hot spot for sexually antagonistic polymorphism.

Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, is often used as a model system to study sexual antagonism. Image credit: Francisco Romero Ferrero via Wikimedia Commons

So how can we be sure whether William Rice’s theory is correct or not? Filip and Tim concede that experimentally testing this classic theory is difficult. They suggest the most feasible approach is to compare fitness components between fathers and sons (who do not inherit their fathers X chromosome) with fitness components between fathers and daughters (who do). Modern genomic approaches that directly estimate the fitness effects of individual genetic variation (genome-wide association studies or “GWAS” of fitness) are also promising avenues for testing the theory.

Filip and Tim hope that their predictions provide better guidelines for future tests. Their models can be used as baseline expectations against which experimental data can be compared.

While they acknowledge that there are limitations in their models, they maintain further attention to this issue will greatly improve our ability to predict the potential contributions of X-linked and autosomal genes to population genetic diversity and species divergence.

This research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Pathogen exposure reduces sexual dimorphism in a host’s upper thermal limits

Authors: Tess Laidlaw, Tobias E Hector, Carla M. Sgrò, and Matthew D Hall

Published in: Ecology and Evolution


The climate is warming at an unprecedented rate, pushing many species toward and beyond the upper temperatures at which they can survive. Global change is also leading to dramatic shifts in the distribution of pathogens. As a result, upper thermal limits and susceptibility to infection should be key determinants of whether populations continue to persist, or instead go extinct. Within a population, however, individuals vary in both their resistance to both heat stress and infection, and their contributions to vital growth rates. No more so is this true than for males and females. Each sex often varies in their response to pathogen exposure, thermal tolerances, and particularly their influence on population growth, owing to the higher parental investment that females typically make in their offspring. To date, the interplay between host sex, infection, and upper thermal limits has been neglected.

Here, we explore the response of male and female Daphnia to bacterial infection and static heat stress.

We find that female Daphnia, when uninfected, are much more resistant to static heat stress than males, but that infection negates any advantage that females are afforded. We discuss how the capacity of a population to cope with multiple stressors may be underestimated unless both sexes are considered simultaneously.

Laidlaw T, Hector TE, Sgrò CM, Hall MD (2020) Pathogen exposure reduces sexual dimorphism in a host’s upper thermal limits. Ecology and Evolution PDF DOI

Cell size influences inorganic carbon acquisition in artificially selected phytoplankton

Authors: Martino E Malerba, Dustin J Marshall, Maria M Palacios, John A Raven, and John Beardall

Published in: New Phytologist


Cell size influences the rate at which phytoplankton assimilate dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), but it is unclear whether volume‐specific carbon uptake should be greater in smaller or larger cells. On the one hand, Fick’s Law predicts smaller cells to have a superior diffusive CO2 supply. On the other, larger cells may have greater scope to invest metabolic energy to upregulate active transport per unit area through CO2‐concentrating mechanisms (CCMs).

Previous studies have focused on among‐species comparisons, which complicates disentangling the role of cell size from other covarying traits. In this study, we investigated the DIC assimilation of the green alga Dunaliella tertiolecta after using artificial selection to evolve a 9.3‐fold difference in cell volume. We compared CO2affinity, external carbonic anhydrase (CAext), isotopic signatures (δ13C) and growth among size‐selected lineages.

Evolving cells to larger sizes led to an upregulation of CCMs that improved the DIC uptake of this species, with higher CO2 affinity, higher CAext and higher δ13C. Larger cells also achieved faster growth and higher maximum biovolume densities.

We showed that evolutionary shifts in cell size can alter the efficiency of DIC uptake systems to influence the fitness of a phytoplankton species.

Malerba ME, Marshall DJ, Palacios MM, Raven JA, Beardall J (2020) Cell size influences inorganic carbon acquisition in artificially selected phytoplankton. New Phytologist PDF DOI

Winners and losers: why developmental strategy is important in determining marine invertebrate distributions under future climate

Global change will alter the distribution of organisms around the planet. Dustin Marshall and Mariana Álvarez-Noriega found rising ocean temperatures will impact early life stages of marine invertebrates and change the patterns in the distribution of species that we see today. In particular, species in which mothers invest heavily in offspring will be the biggest losers. These species occur predominantly at the poles.

In terrestrial environments seeds often disperse in the wind, with shape and size affecting how far they travel. It turns out much the same happens in the ocean but currents rather than wind carry marine larvae to their new homes. Larvae able to feed spend much longer in the water column meaning these species have far greater dispersal capabilities.

As with plants, dispersal is crucial to the survival of marine populations. Arriving larvae can seed new areas, re-seed vulnerable populations, and provide genetic variation for subsequent generations in far-flung regions. There is a downside: if temperature affects dispersal, it will also shape how species are affected by global warming.

Not all marine species use the same reproductive or life-history strategies which can mean differences in dispersal distances from centimetres to hundreds of kilometres for different species. Interestingly, there is a well-recognised relationship between latitude (or temperature) and reproductive strategy.

Species at higher latitudes (nearer the poles) tend to invest more heavily in their offspring and produce non-feeding larvae or bypass the larval stage altogether. This means these species don’t disperse very far. In contrast, tropical species tend to put little effort into provisioning their offspring and produce larvae that can feed. As a result, these larvae can spend a lot more time in the plankton and can be dispersed vast distances.

Dustin and Mariana wanted to know how these dispersal relationships might change as global temperatures change. To address this question, they revisited the database of marine invertebrates classified into feeding / development types from a previous study. They established relationships between temperature and development mode so they could then explore how predicted temperatures for 2100 would change patterns in distributions.

So, how will global warming affect these relationships? We know species’ in warmer waters are more likely to produce large numbers of feeding larvae able to remain in the water column for weeks at a time. As waters warm, these species are well placed to extend their range.

In contrast, species based in cooler waters tend to invest heavily in individual offspring, meaning that they develop quicker and settle closer to their parents. This reproductive strategy means that such species are more vulnerable to rapid global change as moving to new areas will, of necessity, be step-wise and slow.

Species at the poles will therefore be the biggest losers because not only will their lower dispersal lifestyles mean they will be slow to access cooler waters but also the options are limited; there is nowhere to go.

This figure shows the predicted change in prevalence of three different development modes in the southern hemisphere under a predicted scenario for global warming. The blue line shows an even increase of feeding larvae across all latitudes, while non-feeding planktonic larvae (purple line) will only increase at higher latitudes and there will be a loss of species that invest most heavily in their young and don’t have a planktonic larval stage near the poles (orange line).

This research was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.