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Male Promiscuity Boosts Role of Chance in Sex Chromosome Evolution

Thu, 19 Mar 2015 15:02:31 +0000

Humans, like all mammals and birds, determine sex with chromosomes. Whether a fertilised egg develops into a male or female depends on what chromosomes it carries Scientists have long recognised that genes evolve a little differently on the sex chromosomes, and recent research in GEE suggests this may be due to differing patterns of inheritance […]

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Sloths Move Slow, Evolve Fast

Wed, 11 Mar 2015 18:20:41 +0000

Sloths might be notorious for their leisurely pace of life, but research published last year shows they are no slow coaches when it comes to evolution. Sloths, as we know and love them, are small, slow-moving creatures found in the trees of tropical rainforests. But modern sloths are pretty odd compared to their extinct relatives. […]

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Write About Research – A GEE Research Blog Competition

Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:28:43 +0000

The GEE Research blog communicates UCL science with a wider, non-specialist audience, by providing short summaries of recent research in the department of UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment. This provides an opportunity to engage with a broad audience, including other academics, students, members of the public, and even businesses and policy-makers. It is a great […]

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Was Fermentation Key to Yeast Diversification?

Tue, 17 Feb 2015 15:30:43 +0000

From bread to beer, yeast has shaped our diets and our recreation for centuries. Recent research in GEE shows how humans have shaped the evolution of this important microorganism. As well as revealing the evolutionary origins of modern fission yeast, the new study published in Nature Genetics this month shows how techniques developed for detecting […]

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Planning for the Future – Resilience to Extreme Weather

Thu, 15 Jan 2015 15:13:14 +0000

As climate change progresses, extreme weather events are set to increase in frequency, costing billions and causing immeasurable harm to lives and livelihoods. GEE’s Professor Georgina Mace contributed to the recent Royal Society report on “Resilience to Extreme Weather”, which predicts the future impacts of increasing extreme weather events, and evaluates potential strategies for improving […]

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Obituary: Professor David Wilkie, born 6th August 1923, died 3rd March 2013

4 April 2013

A picture of Ian as a young handsome RAF pilot

My colleague David Wilkie who died recently at the age of 89 was an extraordinary and endearing character. As an undergraduate at Glasgow University he played football for Queens Park, then an amateur club in the professional Scottish league, having previously represented Scotland as a schoolboy. David's studies were interrupted in 1942 when, at the age of just 19, he volunteered for service in the RAF.

Following training on Spitfires in South Africa David was transferred to Burma where he flew Hurricanes in the war against Japan. When the war ended he remained in the Far East where he flew Dakotas and DC3's and helped evacuate prisoners of war from the infamous Changi prison in Singapore. During this period David was the personal pilot to Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Burma, Hugh Saunders (later Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Saunders). Pilot Officer Wilkie returned to Scotland in December 1946 saying that he had flown every day for four years and never wanted to fly again. He never did.


After completing his undergraduate studies David remained in Glasgow where he joined the laboratory of the distinguished geneticist Guido Pontecorvo who was then engaged in the fine structure mapping of genes in the the ascomycete fungus, Aspergillus nidulans. His PhD complete, David was appointed in 1954 to a Lectureship in the Department of Botany, University College London where he was to remain for his entire academic career.

Ian's BBQ in 2011 when he was pleased to meet his old colleagues

At UCL David initially continued research on the genetics of Aspergillus showing among other things that the mutagenic wavelength of UV light was 260 nm rather than 280 nm and, thus, was inducing changes in nucleic acid and not protein. In 1959-1960 a Rockefeller Foundation Visiting Fellowship to the Genetics Department of the University of Washington, Seattle signalled a change of research direction. In Seattle David came under the 'inspired guidance' (his words) of Herschel Roman and Don Hawthorne who were among a small group of geneticists who foresaw the enormous research potential of working with a single celled organism, the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Over the next ten years David's work explored the possibility that, in addition to genes located on the chromosomes in the nucleus, yeast also possessed genes in the mitochondrion, the organelle that generates most of the cell's energy. This was a risky, even foolhardy, research venture in the early 1960's but with typical patience and resourcefulness David was able to show that not only did such genes exist, but also that they were linked together on a small mitochondrial 'chromosome.' By 1963 the work had advanced sufficiently to publish a monograph entitled The Cytoplasm in Heredity which was the standard reference in this area for a number of years.


Mitochondria remained the focus of David's research for the next 30 years (he often described himself as a 'mitochondriac'). From the 1970's his thoughts increasingly turned to the role of mitochondria in cancer; in particular as targets for chemotherapy. Once again, this was a controversial topic albeit one that has received increasing credence as more and more is understood about these fascinating organelles. Throughout David's career at UCL he was a much loved undergraduate teacher, a kind and generous mentor to postgraduate students and a patient and meticulous examiner.  David retired from UCL in 1988 but carried on his research a couple of days a week in a corner of my lab. My students loved having him around; perhaps in part because there was always shortbread for afternoon tea!


I feel honoured to have shared my working life with such a distinguished scientist and such a remarkable man.

Jeremy S Hyams
Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology, UCL

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