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Joana Meier

As a Branco Weiss Fellow, Dr. Joana Meier will study genomic and ecological factors contributing to rapid adaptation and the rapid evolution of species. While species usually take long time to adapt to changing environments and even longer to evolve into new species, adaptation and speciation can sometimes be surprisingly fast. Dr. Joana Meier will study drivers of such rapid evolution which will increase our understanding of how species might be able to cope with climate change and replace extinct ones.



Academic Career

  • Assistant Professor at Tree of Life Programme, Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hinxton, United Kingdom, 2022-present
  • Postdoctoral Researcher in Zoology at University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2018-2022
  • Postdoctoral Researcher in Evolutionary Biology at University of Bern, Switzerland, 2016-2018
  • PhD in Ecology and Evolution (summa cum laude), University of Bern and EAWAG, Switzerland, 2012-2016
  • MSc in Ecology and Evolution (summa cum laude), University of Bern, Switzerland, 2010-2012
  • Semester abroad, University of Vermont, USA, 2009
  • BSc in Biology, University of Bern, Switzerland, 2007-2010

Major Awards

  • St John’s College Research Fellowship, University of Cambridge, UK, 2018
  • Award for the best PhD thesis of the Department of Biology, University of Bern, Switzerland, 2017

In the News


Branco Weiss Fellow Since

Research Category
Evolutionary biology, ecology, biogeography, bioinformatics

Research Location
Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Tree of Life Programme, Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hinxton, United Kingdom

We are currently facing an unprecedented decline of biodiversity. Many species are unable to adapt as quickly as the environment changes. However, species extinction is only one part of the equation as the total number of species depends both on the number of species that evolved and on the number of species that got extinct. Some species can adapt very fast to changing environments and thus escape extinction and under certain conditions, new species can evolve very rapidly. The research of Dr Joana Meier shows that hybridisation, i.e. crossbreeding between species, can speed up adaptation and speciation. If two species combine their genetic variation, there is much more substrate for selection to act upon and long waiting times for new mutations can be circumvented. Dr Joana Meier showed that hybridisation facilitated explosive species diversification of Lake Victoria cichlid fishes which evolved 500 ecologically diverse species in just 15,000 years. Hybridisation can also allow the transfer of adaptive alleles between species and thus speed up adaptation. However, hybridisation can also lead to the loss of local adaptation and merging of species and it is thus important to understand how hybridisation impacts biodiversity. The research by Dr Joana Meier will shed light on the role of hybridisation and other genomic and ecological factors allowing rapid evolution. Her work has important conservation implications, particularly in these times of rapid environmental change.
Details of Research
Dr. Joana Meier will establish South- and Central American ithomiine butterflies (393 known species) as a new study system for rapid adaptation and rapid evolution of new species. This group of butterflies shows large variation in the speed of diversification, whereby two genera stand out as being particularly fast in evolving new species. Dr. Joana Meier will test if her finding of an important role of hybridisation in cichlid fishes also applies to these rapidly speciating butterflies which would confirm the generality of her findings. In addition, she will test a multitude of other ecological and genomic factors that potentially drive the rapid speciation. By combining field work, genomics, bioinformatics, ecological and behavioural studies, she will take a highly integrative approach. Through collaborations, Dr. Joana Meier is also involved in studying similar questions in Swiss wall lizards, Hawaiian spiders, African daisies, and different groups of butterflies. Studying the same questions in different taxa will provide generalizable insights on factors facilitating rapid adaptation and speciation.