Sandra Varga setting up a field experiment to exclude pollinators in Lincoln, UK.
Sandra Varga setting up a field experiment to exclude pollinators in Lincoln, UK.

Sandra is an evolutionary ecologist deeply interested in understanding how plants interact with their environment, linking aboveground and belowground processes. Specifically, she explores the relationships between plants, mycorrhizal fungi, pollinators and herbivores. She is particularly interested in the evolution and maintenance of sexually dimorphic plant breeding systems, and how these systems and their associates are impacted by climate change. She combines observational approaches with manipulative experiments both in the field and in greenhouse conditions and uses molecular and physiological methods.

From Catalonia to Finland

I have always been interested in plants, probably since the first time I germinated a bean plant in school and I could observe how rapidly a new individual develops. My fascination for fungi is doubtless due to my parents being passionate wild mushroom pickers, and I have managed to merge these two fields in my research career.  

My career path brought me to move from Catalonia, Spain, to Oulu, Finland, to conduct my PhD studies at the University of Oulu. There, I developed a growing interest in understanding plant-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal relationships. My research showed that plants can have a specific relationship with their mycorrhizal symbionts depending on the gender of the plant (Varga & Kytöviita, 2008; Varga & Kytöviita, 2010a), and this sex-specific relationship can have further impacts to the floral visitors (Varga & Kytöviita, 2010b).

I followed this line of research during my Postdoctoral position at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, getting a deeper understanding of sex-specific interactions in sexually dimorphic plants (Vega-Frutis et al., 2013) and also showing for the first time that arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can have transgenerational effects on their hosts (Varga et al., 2013).

And from Finland to the UK

Close up of the flowers of Geranium sylvaticum, one of Sandra's favourite study systems.
2. Close up of the flowers of Geranium sylvaticum, one of Sandra’s favourite study systems.

In 2015 I obtained a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship and moved to Lincoln, UK, where I continued investigating arbuscular mycorrhizal effects on sexually dimorphic plants. After that, I became a lecturer first and a senior lecturer later. Currently, I’m still enjoying conducting my research trying to elucidate how arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi influence their hosts through DNA methylation (Varga& Soulsbury, 2019) and how climate change may influence plant breeding system evolution (Varga& Soulsbury, 2010), alongside teaching and researching next to the next generations of biologists and ecologists (Goddard et al., 2020; Harris & Varga, 2021).

Recommended reading

Three of the most relevant Functional Ecology papers to my research are:

  • Stearns (1989) classic paper on trade-offs in life-history evolution, as most of my hypotheses on why should we expect a sex-specific relationship between arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and plants is based on trade-offs between plant functions and the differences in the costs of reproduction by the different genders.
  • Ashman (2009) work on sexual dimorphism in floral scent. Flowers from males and females may not only look different, but even smell different to pollinators!
  • Dudley et al. (2013) excellent work on kin recognition and competition in plants, which we have been recently using with my students to investigate kin recognition at the root level.

Joining Functional Ecology as an associate editor was really appealing to me, as I have always enjoyed reading the journal. I really value the opportunity to contribute to disseminate great science as an associate editor, and I look forward to reading your contributions and to continue growing the success of this exceptional journal.

References

Ashman T-L (2009). Sniffing out patterns of sexual dimorphism in floral scent. Functional Ecology 23:852–862.

Dudley SA, Murphy GP, File AL(2013). Kin recognition and competition in plants. Functional Ecology 27:898–906.

Goddard E, Varga S, John EA, Soulsbury CD (2020). Evidence for kin recognition in the clonal plant species Glechoma hederacea. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 8: 354.

Harris N, Varga S (2021). Intraspecific sexual competition in the clonal gynodioecious herb Glechoma hederacea in response to patchy nutrient distribution. Plant Ecology, in press. doi: 10.1007/s11258-020-01087-0

Stearns SC (1989). Trade-offs in life-history evolution. Functional Ecology 3:259–268.

Varga S, Kytöviita MM (2008). Sex-specific responses to mycorrhiza in a dioecious species. American Journal of Botany 95: 1225-1232

Varga S, Kytöviita MM (2010a). Mycorrhizal benefit differs among the sexes in a gynodioecious species. Ecology 91: 2583-2593.

Varga S, Kytöviita MM (2010b). Gender dimorphism and mycorrhizal symbiosis affect floral visitors and reproductive output in Geranium sylvaticum. Functional Ecology 24: 750-758.

Varga S, Soulsbury CD (2019). Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi change host plant DNA methylation levels systemically. Plant Biology 21: 278-283.

Varga S, Soulsbury CD (2020). Environmental stressors affect sex ratios in sexually dimorphic plant sexual systems. Plant Biology 22: 890-898.

Varga S, Vega-Frutis R, Kytöviita M-M (2013). Transgenerational effects of plant sex and arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis. New Phytologist, 199: 812-821

Vega-Frutis R, Munguía-Rosas M-A, Varga S, Kytöviita M-M (2013) Sex-specific patterns and biotic interactions in sexually dimorphic plants. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 15: 45-55.