Michael Matschiner is a biologist. What both interests and fascinates him is the emergence of new species. You might think that 160 years after Darwin’s pioneering work on evolutionary theory the most important questions would have been resolved. But they haven’t – not by a long way. The influence of hybrids on the formation of new species, for example, remains very much a mystery. Michael Matschiner is working on a project at the University of Zurich’s Paleontological Institute and Museum to shed more light on this “fundamental issue.” In Marcelo Sanchéz’s group the postdoc has found just the right setting to realize his project on the formation of species in vertebrates and the role of hybrids.
Matschiner studied biology in Constance and Lausanne before working at the University of Basel, the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis in Oslo (Cees), and the University of Auckland. His work has always revolved around speciation (the formation of species); to this end he has studied cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika, ice fish in the Antarctic, cod in the North Atlantic, house sparrows in the Mediterranean region, and catfish from the tropics. In the course of his journeyman years he’s trained in advanced bioinformatics and statistics – important tools he will now need for studying hybridization.
His work at the Paleontological Institute will involve investigating around 25 families of vertebrates to see whether, and to what extent, hybrids have accelerated the process of speciation in these families. To do so he’ll be comparing the rate of speciation over millions of years with the rate of hybridization. “The University of Zurich is the ideal setting for this work,” explains Matschiner, “as there’s plenty of expertise at UZH in the different areas relevant for me.” A number of research groups have joined forces in a UZH University Research Priority Program called Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems, to continue pursuing a megatheme in biology launched all that time ago by Charles Darwin. Matschiner’s two-year stint in Zurich begins in December.