Santiago Herrera


Research Summary

My research interests include all aspects of biological evolution in the ocean, but especially the molecular ecology of deep-sea invertebrates from hard-bottom and chemosynthetic habitats. I combine different molecular genetics tools and interdisciplinary field observations to study the diversity, evolutionary history, phylogeography, population genomics and adaptations of deep-sea and cold-water organisms. These are examples of the kinds of questions I try to answer through my research: How are deep-sea species related among them and to other marine species? When and where did particular species originate? What causes differentiation among animal populations in the deep sea? How and when certain groups of species, such as barnacles from hydrothermal vents, colonized different ocean basins? What constitutes a species of deep-sea coral? What characteristics allow certain organisms from the same species to live in dramatically different environments? Understanding evolution in the deep sea will answer fundamental questions about how organisms have adapted to a changing planet over time, and will therefore provide insights for future protection strategies.

Deep-sea ecosystems are currently under stress caused by human activities. The main sources of human-induced stress include physical damage caused by bottom-trawling fisheries, climate change and ocean acidification caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and habitat destruction generated by waste disposal, deep-sea mining, and off-shore drilling for hydrocarbons. The identification of critical conservation targets - by determining which biological units are of highest importance - is fundamental for the design and implementation of efficient conservation strategies that will mitigate the negative effects caused by these stressors. Well-founded identification of the numbers and types of species present in a community, coupled with an understanding of the processes that shape the biodiversity in the deep-sea, will allow us to identify species at risk of extinction and characterize their distribution patterns, relatedness, genetic variance, and potential for adaptation. Although very important for conservation strategies, it remains extremely difficult to define species and population boundaries for the majority of deep-sea animals, due to the paucity of genetic, ecological, and taxonomic comparative data presently available.

My overarching research goal is to increase fundamental high-priority knowledge in taxonomic, genetic, evolutionary, and ecological aspects of the key species that comprise the foundation of deep-sea coral and hydrothermal vent ecosystems – two of the most threatened ecosystems in the deep ocean – through the development of novel genomic tools and bioinformatics techniques. My ongoing projects aim to 1) reconstruct spatial and temporal relationships among putative species of model deep-sea organisms from deep-sea coral and hydrothermal vent ecosystems to understand the mechanisms that have shaped current biogeographic patterns; 2) identify species-specific genomic markers that will enable rapid and accurate identification of specimens; 3) determine patterns and scales of genetic connectivity among populations of important cold-water coral and hydrothermal vent species inhabiting highly threatened geographic areas; and 4) use genomic information to understand how corals may be able to adapt to ongoing environmental changes. I am also developing analytical tools that can be applied to examine genomic diversity in any kind of organism, ranging from fungi to deep-sea barnacles to humans.