The 55th Phylogenetic Symposium entitled “The time for phylogenetics: inferring and applying timetrees in evolutionary biology”  was held at the Carl von Ossietzky-University Oldenburg between November, 22nd and 24th, 2013. The meeting has a long tradition mainly among German-speaking zoologists since its first meeting in 1957 in Hamburg organized by Curt Kosswig, Adolf Remane and Wolf Herre. Back then the theme was “evolution and genetics” and while often shifting in theme more to “evolution and morphology” our theme this year went certainly back to the origin but not exclusively so, appreciating the wealth of old and new data, novel ways of analysis and fascinating inferences possible now.
Events some 100 million or 50 years ago
The Symposium attracted a diverse group of 117 participants including eight speakers and 30 students. Since the meeting was advertised mainly in Germany, most participants were from Germany but also Swedish and Spanish colleagues joined. The list of speakers was supposed to be a balance between established professors, established scientists and PostDocs or early-career scientists (4:1:3), between female and male speakers (3:5), German-speaking and other scientists (3:5), botanists and zoologists. Well, in the latter speakers emphasized that some are trained botanists but presented zoological research and vice versa, some have to put more into the column of theoretical biologists and one is a virologist. Common to all is the interest in dating evolutionary events using phylogenetic methods, no matter whether these events were 100 million years or 50 years ago.
Case studies, fossils and genes, diversification, and coevolution
Susanne Renner (Munich) presented several case studies challenging common routines in the estimation of dated phylogenies in molecular systematics and highlighting new possibilities with dating events through sequencing of single genomes. Mike Benton (Bristol) demonstrated important ways to combine information from fossils and molecular data with having caveats of both in mind. Mario dos Reis (London) guided the audience through the intricacies of Bayesian estimation of divergence time, while Tanja Stadler (Zurich) showed possible ways to estimate patterns of diversification using dated phylogenies. After these more theoretical talks, Isabel San Martin (Madrid) gave an outline over the field of biogeography including recent analytical advances and results from recent comparative analyses of biogeographical patterns. The first day was concluded by Chuck Bell (New Orleans) who presented case studies in various plants and ants to test patterns of coevolution and cospeciation in a dated framework.
Discussions about various themes like HIV, beeches and oaks
On the final day, Nuno Faria (Oxford) demonstrated how using DNA sequencing of HIV and historical information can be combined to infer the history of human infection by this deadly virus. In the final talk, Peter Linder (Zurich) presented another well-documented case of combining historical information and DNA-based phylogenetic analysis on a different time-scale in the analysis of the order Fagales (beech and oak). The symposium was concluded by a discussion on recent developments in dating phylogenetic trees, possible pit-falls and future promises. In contrast to many other such symposia a real discussion developed that nicely highlighted common interest across the fields interested in dating evolutionary events.
Young researchers received grants
Besides these stimulating talks there was ample time for discussion in the schedule during the initial ice-breaker on Friday evening, during coffee breaks, the poster session on Saturday evening and the conference dinner at the Alibaba restaurant. Especially, the 23 posters presented rounded up the field showing current projects of early careers-scientists employing various strategies to incorporate information on dating analyses in various research questions.
Financial support of the meeting by the DBG was used for stipends of 50 Euros each to young researchers, who received their doctorate in the last three years and presented a poster. 20 such stipends were given to botanists. Additional stipends funded by the Gesellschaft für Biologische Systematik (GfBS) were used for zoologists.
The next Phylogenetic Symposium will take place in fall 2014 in Bonn, Germany (Organizer: Prof. Misof).
Report from Professor Dr. Dirk Albach, University of Oldenburg