Matthew Knope, Associate Professor of Biology

One of the main goals of Knope’s research program is integrating the way biologists study living organisms with the way fossil organisms are studied, so that direct comparisons can be made between the modern and the ancient.

Matthew Knope is an associate professor of biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo with promotion and tenure received in 2021. He is an evolutionary ecologist specializing in speciation and extinction, specifically the generation and loss of plant and animal biodiversity in Hawai‘i and globally, working on research questions that lie directly at the intersection of ecology and evolution.

Knope says his most significant contribution to the literature is a study that showed, for the very first time, the basic ecological differentiation history of animals in the oceans across all time. See Limited role of functional differentiation in early diversification of animals (Knope, et. al., Nature Communications, March 4, 2015).

“We expected to see most of the basic ecological strategies show up very early in the evolution of animal life in a quick burst, but we found just the opposite, that it has taken about 500 million years to slowly accumulate new ecological strategies with strong upticks in the 10-20 million years after mass extinctions,” Knope, lead author of the study, explains.

“What we show is that marine animals have followed a ‘late filling’ model in which it has taken the past 542 million years to get to where we are now—a world filled with a dizzying array of animals doing vastly different things from one another. The world that we see today has really been formed over the very long expanse of evolutionary time.”

To learn more about the study, see Animal functional diversity started out poor, became richer over time (Stanford University, March 4, 2015).

See also, a later study, which Knope co-authored that demonstrated the current biodiversity crisis in the oceans is unlike any other the planet has ever experienced: Ecological selectivity of the emerging mass extinction in the ocean (J.L. Payne, et. al, Science, Sept. 16, 2016). Story: Larger marine animals at higher risk of extinction, and humans are to blame, Stanford-led study finds (Stanford University,  Sept. 14, 2016).

Knope Evolutionary Ecology Lab at UH Hilo

The main goals of Knope’s current research program in the Knope Evolutionary Ecology Lab at UH Hilo are: 1) integrating the way biologists study living organisms with the way fossil organisms are studied, so that direct comparisons can be made between the modern and the ancient and 2) using genomic sequencing technologies to unravel the evolutionary history of Hawaiian plants and to aid in their conservation.

For the first goal, he is comparing how the relationship between taxonomic diversity (e.g., the number of species or genera) and ecological diversity (e.g., the number of different ways that species “make a living”) has changed over time in the oceans leading to what is observed today.

“We see today that we have more species on the planet than there has ever been and that they display a wider array of ecological strategies than ever before, and it is hypothesized that the two are necessarily coupled, because not all species can utilize the same resources and successfully co-exist,” Knope explains.

“What we have found is that this relationship has changed dramatically over time, where early in animal evolution most species were tucked into just a few ecological strategies, but there were far fewer species back then. Over time, animal groups that have evolved many different ecological strategies fare better than those with few ecological strategies during mass extinctions, leading to those groups having far more species, on average, resulting in the world as we know it today where there is a strong relationship between ecological diversity and species diversity.”

For the second goal, Knope is using next-generation DNA sequencing technology to unravel the evolutionary history and aid in the conservation of endemic Hawaiian plants. Analogous to humans using DNA to trace families’ evolutionary lineage, Knope is using a similar approach with Hawaiian plants.

“In the past, our research, and that of many others, has shown that it is difficult to study the evolutionary genetics of Hawaiian plants, in part because many have separated into different species from their common ancestor very rapidly and very recently,” he explains. “By scaling up from sequencing a handful of genes in each individual at a time to sequencing their entire genomes, often comprised of many millions of basepairs of DNA, we are starting to be able to unravel these mysteries of how our iconic Hawaiian plant adaptive radiations have evolved.”

Knope is also now extending this approach to plants in the South Pacific islands as well.

Including students in the research

Knope says it can be a challenge to be at a university with a heavy emphasis on high-quality teaching like UH Hilo, leaving little time for research.

“I find that one of the best ways to overcome this challenge is to get lots of our students directly involved in the research happening in the lab,” he says.

He accomplishes this in three ways:

  1. Mentor undergraduate directed research students, where students receive academic credits for their research efforts in the Knope Lab.
  2. Work with graduate students through the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, where students use the lab as a resource to do their thesis. Students’ faculty advisors are in the Department of Biology but also in other units on campus such as the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management and the Department of  Geography and Environmental Science. Outside agencies also provide supportive resources, such as the Smithsonian Institution.
  3. Involve students in the research by bringing it directly into the classroom. Students learn about the research topics and provide support such as collecting plant species, creating voucher specimens that will be used to generate DNA sequences to be analyzed in the lab. Students present their findings to the greater UH Hilo community at a mini-symposium at the end of the semester. In addition, Knope is collaborating with the Biology Education Research Lab at Arizona State University to study how to best integrate research and teaching efforts in the classroom.

The future

Knope plans to continue to work with students at UH Hilo on questions related to speciation and extinction in Hawai‘i and globally. He hopes to help improve understanding about the processes that promote the generation of new species and what can be done to better understand how the current biodiversity crisis compares to extinction patterns in the past.

“This will help our students meet their own academic and career goals as they learn how exciting research can be,” he says.

The Hawaiian Islands are arguably the world’s premier natural laboratory for the study of ecology, evolution, and conservation biology in both terrestrial and marine habitats and because of this, Knope says, UH Hilo is uniquely situated to continue to strongly contribute to the understanding of these fields.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be able to live and work here on Hawai‘i Island, which is undoubtedly one of the most special places on the planet, and to work with the incredible students, faculty, and staff of this university,” he says. “There are so many positive things happening all across this university, and I am honored to have the chance to be a small part of it.”

By Susan Enright, public information specialist, Office of the Chancellor. 

Originally published Dec. 5, 2018 and last updated Jan. 8, 2019. Tenure and promotion updated Sept 22, 2021.