Genetics, Evolution and Environment


GEE News

Professor Georgina Mace wins prestigious biodiversity award

We are proud to announce Professor Dame Georgina Mace has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in recognition of her pioneering research in biodiversity.
Professor Mace, founding director of the UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research and UCL Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems, was jointly awarded the Ecology and Conservation Biology category of the prize with Professor Gretchen Daily of Stanford University.

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Neanderthals sprinted in Ice Age woodlands

Neanderthals lived in much warmer climates than previously thought, with bodies that supported sprinting rather than distance running according to a new study co-authored by Professor Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann.
The finding challenges the assumption that Neanderthals were a branch of the human family tree that was specifically adapted to cold, open tundra-like environments.

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CBER to represent UCL on the Global Challenges Research Fund 'Hubs' initiative

We are pleased to announce the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research is a partner on one of the 12 recently awarded Global Challenges Research Fund 'Hubs'. These cross-disciplinary hubs are each receiving around £20 million to look into and address one of the global challenges.
CBER is part of the UKRI GCRF Trade, Development and the Environment (TRADE) Hub, led by the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), which aims to understand the environmental and social costs and benefits of international trade. UCL's contribution to the project will be led by Dr Tim Newbold and Professor Georgina Mace. The funding of around £0.75 million will allow them to support two research staff who will be working on evaluating biodiversity impacts of international trade.

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New spider named after UCL scientist Dr Ben Collen

A newly discovered species of spider, Loureedia colleni, has been named in honour of Dr Ben Collen, an internationally recognised conservation scientist and founder member of the UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research.

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Dr Lucy van Dorp interviewed by BBC Radio 4 on the genetic legacy of political systems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Dr Lucy van Dorp, post-doctoral researcher at UCL Genetics Institute, spoke to Dr Adam Rutherford on BBC Radio 4 Inside Science about the genetic legacy of state centralisation in the pre-colonial political system of the Kuba Kingdom, located in what is now the central Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The study, an international five-year collaboration between UCL and economists at Harvard University and published in PNAS, finds that the formation of the Kuba Kingdom into a large-scale and centralised state shaped the DNA of its descendents. Members of the Kuba Kingdom today, called the Kuba, are both more genetically diverse and retain genetic signatures of migration and mixing not detected in neighbouring people. As discussed on Radio 4, this work demonstrates the importance of societal systems in shaping genetic patterns, as well as the utility of genetic analyses to reveal information on historical events, particularly in regions of the world where few written records exist.

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Sue Povey, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics

It is with great sadness that we inform you of  the passing of Professor Sue Povey MD FMedSci, who was associated with UCL, within the MRC Human Biochemical Genetics Unit  and the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment (and its forerunners), for most of her career.  As Emeritus Professor in Human Genetics, Sue continued her long term research interest into the study of Tuberous Sclerosis with the curation of mutation databases of the two genes responsible, TSC1 and TSC2 until only a few months ago.

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Congratulations to Dr Kerri Kinghorn who has been awarded a Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Career Development Fellowship

Dr Kerri Kinghorn, a UCL Excellence Fellow in the Institute of Healthy Ageing, has been awarded a five-year Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Development Fellowship. This will enable her to establish her own research group to study the ‘Endolysosomal trafficking defects in Parkinson’s disease’ using Drosophila and neuronal models.
Please join us in congratulating Dr Kinghorn for her outstanding achievement.

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Congratulations to Dr Jack Humphrey for successfully passing his viva

Please join us in congratulating Dr Jack Humphrey, MRC Clinical Neuroscience PhD student, for successfully passing his viva on 14 December. His project was jointly supervised by Dr Vincent Plagnol from the UCL Genetics Institute, Professor Adrian Isaacs, and Dr Pietro Fratta, both at the UCL Institute of Neurology.

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GEE student from the Gems lab receives funding award from Doctoral School to host the CLeanTech Challenge, a UCL-LBS initiative

Carina Kern, PhD Student in Professor David Gems lab and Scientific Chair of the CleanTech Challenge (CTC) has successfully been awarded a contribution from the UCL Doctoral School to help fund the 2019 CTC Competition. Matched funding will be contributed by the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship London Business School and a small contribution was made by the Graduate Tutors from GEE.

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GEE student receives the 2018 Publisher's Award for Excellence in Systematic Research

Dr Konstantinos Angelis, a PhD student from Professor Ziheng Yang's group, has won the 2018 Publisher's Award for Excellence in Systematic Research from the Society of Systematic Biology, for his paper published in the journal Systematic Biology. The full list of recent and past winners of the award can be found on the Society of Systematic Biologists website.
The award, sponsored by Systematic Biology's publisher, is presented to the two best papers based on student research published in Systematic Biology during the previous year. The lead author must be a student at the time the research is conducted. The Publisher's Award is $US 500 and is presented at the annual meeting to the student authors. The winner is selected by a committee consisting of the President and the Editor.
Kostas graduated in 2016 and has been working with GlaxoSmithKline.

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Monitoring urban biodiversity with machine learning

A new algorithm developed by UCL academics to monitor biodiversity in urban environments could improve our understanding of how cities can best support plant and animal life.

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Another GEE PhD viva success – congratulations to Dr Filip Ruzicka!

Please join us in congratulating Dr Filip Ruzicka, London NERC DTP student supervised by Dr Max Reuter and Professor Kevin Fowler, for successfully passing his viva on 27 November.
His thesis "The genetics and evolutionary dynamics of sexually antagonistic polymorphisms in Drosophila melanogaster" was examined by Professor Göran Arnqvist (Uppsala University) and Professor Mark Thomas.

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Congratulations to Dr Jeremy Levy

Congratulations to Dr Jeremy Levy, CoMPLEX student supervised by Dr Christophe Dessimoz and Professor Max Telford, for successfully passing his viva on 13 November. Jeremy's thesis "Computational Methods to Resolve Deep Species Phylogenies" was examined by Professor Antonis Rokas (Vanderbilt University) and Professor Richard Mott.
We wish Jeremy all the best in his future endeavours!

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Congratulations to Dr Tom Evans for successfully passing his viva

Please join us in congratulating Dr Tom Evans (Blackburn lab in CBER) who successfully passed his viva on 31 October. His thesis “Quantifying and categorising the environmental impacts of alien birds” was examined by Professor Helen Roy from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), an expert in alien species and their impacts, and Dr Seirian Sumner, from CBER, and was passed with no corrections.

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Congratulations to Dr Adam Britton

Please join us in congratulating Dr Adam Britton (Dr Julia Day lab) who successfully passed his viva on 5 November. His thesis “Assessing human impacts on Lake Tanganyika cichlid fish communities” was examined by Professor Martin Genner from University of Bristol, an expert in the evolution and ecology of cichlid fishes, and Dr Alex Pigot, GEE a Royal Society Research Fellow.
Adam is now working as a marine scientist for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). We wish him every success in his future career.

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How drug resistant TB evolved and spread globally

The most common form of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) originated in Europe and spread to Asia, Africa and the Americas with European explorers and colonialists, reveals a new study led by UCL and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

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Why do we love bees but hate wasps?

New study by the Sumner lab reveals that wasps are universally disliked by the public and this is most likely due to a low-level interest in nature and a lack of knowledge about the benefits wasps bring to our planet’s health and function.

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New paper by the Gems lab throws new light on senescence causes

The study, published in Current Biology and funded by Wellcome, shows that normal biological processes which are useful early on in life, continue to ‘run-on’ pointlessly in later life causing age-related diseases.

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New study co-authored by CBER’s Fiona Spooner and Richard Pearson identifies global warming rate as a critical factor behind birds and mammals population declines

For the study, published in Global Change Biology, 987 populations of 481 species across the globe were studied to investigate how the rate of climate change and land-use change (from natural to human-dominated landscapes) interact to affect the rate of decline on mammals and birds, as well as whether species located in protected areas and body size had an influence.
The rate at which our climate is warming was found to be the best explanation for the observed rate of population declines.

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Senior Promotions 2018

Congratulations to all colleagues whose achievements have been recognised in the most recent round of Senior Promotions. This year has been exceptional in terms of the number of applications received and successful promotions. We proudly present a list of Divisional promotees:

Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment

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Congratulations to Dr Eloi Camprubi

Please join us in congratulating Dr Eloi Camprubi, who last week completed his PhD thesis on “The beginnings of proto-metabolism at the origin of life in alkaline hydrothermal vents”.

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Dr Richard Pearson receives prestigious ZSL Scientific Medal

ZSL’s Scientific Medal is awarded to research scientists with up to 15 years postdoctoral experience for distinguished work in Zoology. CBER’s Richard Pearson was awarded the medal for outstanding contributions to the study of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

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New study co-authored by Professor Helen Chatterjee looks into a new gibbon genus discovered in ancient Chinese tomb

The tomb, first excavated in 2004, was found to contain 12 burial pits with animal remains, which included gibbon bones. Sophisticated computer modelling reveals that these ancient bones represent an entirely new genus and species of gibbon, which the team has named Junzi imperialis. Historical records reveal that Junzi probably survived until less than 300 years ago.

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New paper by CBER’s Tim Newbold identifies climate change as major threat to global biodiversity

The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that the effects of climate change on ecological communities are predicted to match or exceed land use in its effects on vertebrate community diversity by 2070, and surpass the effects of historical land use.
The findings suggest that efforts to minimise human impact on global biodiversity should now take both land use and climate change into account instead of just focusing on one over the other, as the combined effects are expected to have significant negative effects on the global ecosystem.

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Professor Kate Jones discusses how some bats, dolphins and other animals emit sounds at high frequencies to explore their environments, rather than sight with Melvyn Bragg.

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Congratulations to Dr Lara Meade

Please join us in congratulating Dr Lara Meade who last week completed her PhD thesis “Fitness consequences of sex-ratio meiotic drive and female multiple mating in a stalk-eyed fly, Teleopsis dalmanni”.

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Dr Ben Collen Obituary (12 February 1978 – 19 May 2018)

Dr Ben Collen was an internationally recognized conservation scientist whose work has provided new knowledge and understanding about recent trends in wildlife populations across the world. His research was at the forefront of developing science-based indicators to track the precipitous loss of biodiversity around the world and had a major impact on global conservation policies. He died on 19 May 2018 at the age of 40 following a bone cancer diagnosis just 15 months earlier. He tackled his illness with the same attitude that characterized his work, always being positive, open, creative and with great good humour. His untimely death has left a huge hole not only in UCL’s newly-established Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, of which he was a founder member, but also in the international conservation science community.
After graduating in 2001 with a degree in Biology at Imperial College, Ben spent a year working in Kenya undertaking field work on large mammals. The bug to work in conservation took hold and he studied for a Master’s degree at the University of York, undertaking his research project with a like-minded set of conservation biologists based at the Institute of Zoology in London. Ben stayed on to study for a PhD with Professor Georgina Mace and Professor Andy Purvis at Imperial College on understanding how to assess species extinctions. In 2005, with his PhD completed, Ben joined the Indicators and Assessments Unit at the Institute of Zoology working with Dr Jonathan Baillie. Ben was instrumental in the re-launch of the WWF Living Planet Index (LPI). Ben massively enhanced the underlying data and rigour of the analysis of the index that established it as the most widely used indicator of global wildlife population trends, an essential tool for understanding human impacts on our planet’s biodiversity. His work led to a wide range of international collaborations with academics, governments and conservation charities, making him a key contributor to the landmark assessment of the state of global biodiversity in 2010.
In 2013 he joined UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research (CBER) in the Genetics, Evolution and Environment Department, and was promoted to Reader in 2015. Ben played a critical role in defining CBER’s research agenda and developing it as an international centre of excellence for biodiversity research, now with over 40 research staff, post-docs and PhD students. Ben’s own research attracted a large group of research students and postdocs working on understanding how biodiversity is changing across the world, supported by several large research grants, most recently from the Leverhulme Trust, WWF UK and the Darwin Initiative. He made a major contribution to the re-establishment of an undergraduate field course at UCL’s unique field site at Blakeney Point on the north Norfolk coast, and will be remembered by a number of cohorts of Biological Science students for his lively encouragement of their first experience of field research.
We are all devastated by his untimely death, but his work and his style permeates CBER and his legacy will live on in his projects and his students. Our thoughts are with his wife Alanna, his daughter Ottilie and the rest of his family. Messages from around the world have paid tribute not only to his scientific contributions, but also his kindness, generosity of time and spirit, his mischievous sense of humour, and how he inspired so many to pursue careers in conservation. He was the very best of us, and he will be sorely missed by students, staff and friends alike.
Ben’s wife Alanna has set up a JustGiving page in his memory.

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Gene may have helped humans adapt to cold climates - a new study supervised by UGI's Dr Aida Andres

For the study, published in PLOS Genetics, a team from UCL and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, investigated the evolution of TRPM8, a gene that codes for the only known receptor that enables a person to detect and respond to cool and cold temperatures. This receptor is also activated by menthol and is responsible for the refreshing feeling of mint-containing products.

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New research led by the Balloux lab tracks origins of the deadly fungus responsible for the decline in amphibian populations

The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) is distributed around the world but to date it was not known where and when killer strains of the pathogen first emerged.
Now, new research published in Science indicates the killer fungus currently ravaging global amphibian populations originated in East Asia.

Read full article: Genome sequencing reveals origin of killer fungus behind the ‘amphibian plague’
Read full paper: Recent Asian origin of chytrid fungi causing global amphibian declines
Authors: Simon J. O’Hanlon, Adrien Rieux, Rhys A. Farrer, Gonçalo M. Rosa, Bruce Waldman, Arnaud Bataille, Tiffany A. Kosch, Kris A. Murray, Balázs Brankovics, Matteo Fumagalli, Michael D. Martin, Nathan Wales, Mario Alvarado-Rybak, Kieran A. Bates, Lee Berger, Susanne Böll, Lola Brookes, Frances Clare, Elodie A. Courtois, Andrew A. Cunningham, Thomas M. Doherty-Bone, Pria Ghosh, David J. Gower, William E. Hintz, Jacob Höglund, Thomas S. Jenkinson, Chun-Fu Lin, Anssi Laurila, Adeline Loyau, An Martel, Sara Meurling, Claude Miaud, Pete Minting, Frank Pasmans, Dirk S. Schmeller, Benedikt R. Schmidt, Jennifer M. G. Shelton, Lee F. Skerratt, Freya Smith, Claudio Soto-Azat, Matteo Spagnoletti, Giulia Tessa, Luís Felipe Toledo, Andrés Valenzuela-Sánchez, Ruhan Verster, Judit Vörös, Rebecca J. Webb, Claudia Wierzbicki, Emma Wombwell, Kelly R. Zamudio, David M. Aanensen, Timothy Y. James, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Ché Weldon, Jaime Bosch, François Balloux, Trenton W. J. Garner, Matthew C. Fisher.

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Escape to the country

Academics and researchers from GEE and the Natural History Museum escape the city heat for their biennial retreat to the countryside for a day and half of scientific talks.  This year the retreat at Missenden Abbey in the Chiltern Hills, was held in conjunction with the Natural History Museum and provided the perfect backdrop for researchers to network and develop collaborations and links between the two institutions.

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Congratulations to Dr Adam Dobson on his paper in Aging and Mechanisms of Disease!

Ageing human populations present a huge societal challenge, and provides motivation to find ways to improve health in old age. Dietary restriction (DR), is one way to improve late-life health of animals from worms to mammals, and perhaps humans. This effect was first observed over 80 years ago, but the underlying mechanism has proven elusive. In this study, gene expression was profiled in diverse tissues of flies subjected to DR, and from these results a role for proteins called GATA transcription factors was predicted. Reducing expression of GATA transcription factors altered the effect of diet on lifespan, and targeting this knockdown to specific tissues reduced side-effects commonly associated with longevity. Therefore this study predicts that targeting GATA transcription factors in specific tissues may promote the benefits, but not costs, of DR.

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Professor Sam Berry (26 October 1934 – 29 March 2018)

With sadness we note the passing of Professor R J (Sam) Berry, who was the Professor of Genetics at UCL (from 1974) and an active member of the Genetics, Evolution and Environment Department up to the present, and a massive figure in evolutionary and ecological genetics, biodiversity and conservation biology. He was also a leading Christian and wrote extensively on science and religion. We will miss him greatly.
Andrew Pomiankowski

The National Biodiversity Network
The John Ray Initiative
A Rocha International

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Washington Post highlights Dr Karoline Kuchenbaecker's research

Women who carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. For prevention it is important to know cancer risks at different ages.
Dr Karoline Kuchenbaecker (research profile) was involved in the first large study to estimate those risks based on data from women with BRCA mutation that were initially cancer-free.
Now an article in the Washington Post demonstrates what this means for women with a BRCA mutation.

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New report by Evgeniy Galimov and colleagues describes the occurrence of rigor mortis during the early stages of organismal death in C. elegans

Ageing does not cause death by itself but rather drives mortal pathologies. The nature of organismal death and how it is triggered by old age is relatively poorly studied in mammals and barely at all in C. elegans. The study from David Gems' lab, published in Cell Reports, describes a new death-related phenomenon in C. elegans – a wave of muscle hyper-contraction similar to mammalian rigor mortis. Unlike humans C. elegans lack a cardiovascular system, so rigor mortis in worms is an early step during the process of organismal death, likely caused by depletion of ATP. Rigor mortis precedes the blue fluorescent wave of intestinal necrosis, a previously discovered death phenomenon in C. elegans, and is closely coupled with it. Rigor mortis and intestinal necrosis are propagated in an anterior-to-posterior wave by calcium release, and long-lived daf-2 mutants appear resistant to organismal death. This study provides insights into Ca2+-mediated death mechanisms that are conserved from yeast to mammals, and is an interesting model for necrosis-driven neurodegenerative diseases. It defines another link in the chain of events from the development of senescent pathologies to death from old age.

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Inspire 4 Nature: 15 PhD positions open

Join a unique training programme at the interface between academic excellence and the world of international biodiversity conservation organisations!

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Women at Royal Society – a journey to gender equality

A recent publication in Nature looked into how female fellows fared in the world’s oldest scientific academy.
We are pleased to report that Professors Mace and Partridge’s contribution to raising gender equality in the Royal Society were recognised by the article authors.

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Face of first Brit revealed thanks to GEE's Professor Mark Thomas, Dr Yoan Diekmann and Natural History Museum researchers

Congratulations to Professor Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann (both UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) who analysed Cheddar Man’s DNA sequences to establish aspects of his appearance. Following the Natural History Museum and Channel 4 press briefing held on 6 Febraury the story has been picked up by a number of national and international newspapers and boradcasters including the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, BBC, ITV, Sky to name but a few.

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When did flowers originate? - a new study by GEE's Professor Ziheng Yang, Dr Jose Barba-Montoya and colleagues

The study, published recently in New Phytologist by researchers from the UK and China, shows that flowering plants are neither as old as suggested by previous molecular studies, nor as young as a literal interpretation of their fossil record.

Read full article: When did flowers originate?
Read full paper: Constraining uncertainty in the timescale of angiosperm evolution and the veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution

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"Latin Americans show wide-spread Converso ancestry and the imprint of local Native ancestry on physical appearance" - new preprint from UGI's Juan Camilo Chacón-Duque, Garrett Hellenthal, Kaustubh Adhikari, Macarena Fuentes-Guajardo, Javier Mendoza Revilla and colleagues

Abstract: Historical records and genetic analyses indicate that Latin Americans trace their ancestry mainly to the admixture of Native Americans, Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans. Using novel haplotype-based methods here we infer the sub-populations involved in admixture for over 6,500 Latin Americans and evaluate the impact of sub-continental ancestry on the physical appearance of these individuals. We find that pre-Columbian Native genetic structure is mirrored in Latin Americans and that sources of non-Native ancestry, and admixture timings, match documented migratory flows. We also detect South/East Mediterranean ancestry across Latin America, probably stemming from the clandestine colonial migration of Christian converts of non-European origin (Conversos). Furthermore, we find that Central Andean ancestry impacts on variation of facial features in Latin Americans, particularly nose morphology, possibly relating to environmental adaptation during the evolution of Native Americans.

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BBSRC will fund project to uncover proteins and cellular processes important for ageing in fission yeast

Ageing is highly complex and affected by diverse proteins and processes. Modern biological assays can simultaneously measure properties and interactions of thousands of proteins or genes, but it is challenging to make sense of such large datasets. Advances in computational data-analysis methods, called ‘machine learning’, provide exciting opportunities to get the most from large biological datasets and thus increase our understanding of complex processes like ageing. This interdisciplinary project involving three UCL Departments, led by Jürg Bähler in collaboration with Christine Orengo and John Shawe-Taylor, will use fission yeast as a genetic model organism, together with multi-step machine learning, to comprehensively identify biological processes with fundamental importance for ageing.

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GEE's Dr Johnathan Labbadia publishes paper in Cell Reports suggesting that low levels of mitochondrial stress can have beneficial effects on protein folding and ageing

The ability to react to, and counter, the deleterious effects of protein folding stress is crucial for cells to function optimally. As cells age, the capacity to prevent protein misfolding and aggregation declines, driving cell dysfunction and tissue degeneration in adulthood. At present, little is known about the factors that regulate this phenomenon. Therefore, identifying pathways that promote or suppress protein aggregation with age could help identify new ways to maintain tissue function later in life. Using the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, Labbadia and colleagues have found that low levels of mitochondrial stress early in life can suppress age-related protein misfolding in the cytosol, thereby enhancing cell robustness, and preserving tissue function with age. These effects are dependent on the conserved transcription factor HSF-1, suggesting that during times of adversity, mitochondria can communicate with the cytosolic protein quality control machinery to boost protein folding capacity and promote long-term health.

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Darwin gets festive with sciency baubles

The Darwin Common Room Christmas tree Xmas Bauble competition fired the imagination of some of our more creative researchers and there were some great entries to decorate our tree with this year.

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A new lineage of eukaryotes discovered by Jan Janouškovec at UCL GEE and coauthors

The origin of eukaryotes is tied to outstanding questions about how mitochondrial endosymbionts became integrated within them. A new study by researchers from UCL and universities in Canada, USA and Russia, describes a novel flagellated microbe (Ancoracysta), which represents its own lineage in the eukaryotic tree and provides original insights into mitochondrial evolution. Ancoracysta possesses one of the most gene-rich mitochondrial genome ever found and, uniquely, two indepedent systems for mitochondrial cytochrome c biogenesis. Analysing these characteristics across the eukaryotic domain refines scenarios for rooting the tree of eukaryotes and suggests that gene transfer from mitochondria has been highly parallel and exponentially decreasing in nature.

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Leverhulme to fund study to identify and analysis speciation genes in yeast

Different species are defined as groups that do not exchange genes. Even when viable hybrids can form, gene flow between species may nevertheless be prevented if genes from different species are incompatible, preventing hybrids from reproducing. The Leverhulme Trust has funded a project led by Duncan Greig (research profile) to identify such “speciation genes” causing sexual sterility  in yeast hybrids. The project will use genetic manipulation to generate recombinant hybrid genomes with compatible and incompatible combinations of two species genes. Sequencing many recombinant hybrid genomes will reveal the locations and identities of yeast speciation genes.

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GEE and NPP exceed the Russell group average in the National Student Survey 2017

We are proud to announce that Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment and School of Pharmacy exceeded the Russell group average for “academic support” in the most recent NSS Survey. Similarly, Department of Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology excelled in “teaching”.

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Official launch of CLOE

November 2nd 2017 was the official launch of the UCL Centre for Life’s Origins and Evolution.

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UGI welcomes Dr Maria Secrier

UCL Genetics Institute is delighted to welcome Dr Maria Secrier, the new Lecturer in Computational Biology.

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The relentless rise of migration in Europe over last 10,000 years - a new study led by researchers from GEE, University of Cambridge and King’s College London

Three major pulses of increased mobility in Europe over the last 10,000 years and a general upward trend in migration have been uncovered in a new study led by researchers from UCL, University of Cambridge and King’s College London.
The new method, published in PNAS, allows, for the first time, to directly quantify changes in prehistoric migration rates using ancient genetic data over the last 30,000 years.

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Congratulations to Helen Robertson

Please join us in congratulating Helen who has passed her PhD viva. Helen, who is part of Max Telford’s lab, successfully defended her thesis entitled ‘Molecular approaches for studying the evolution of the Xenacoelomorpha’.

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UCL-led ‘Museums on Prescription’ wins health awards

A UCL and Canterbury Christ Church University-led project ‘Museums on Prescription’ has won two prestigious Royal Society of Public Health Awards for ‘Health & Wellbeing’ and ‘Arts and Health’, with a special commendation for ‘Sustainable Development’.

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How $14 billion protected Earth's species

Study involving Dr David Redding shows how billions of dollars of financial investment in global conservation has significantly reduced biodiversity loss.

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Philanthropic Donation to the Institute of Healthy Ageing

David Gems’s research group is delighted to announce the receipt of a philanthropic donation from the entrepreneur and writer Jim Mellon, chairman of Burnbrae. This donation (~£100K) will allow the purchase of a new structured illumination microscope system (Zeiss Apotome) which will be used in studies of ageing in animal models, particularly the development of senescent pathologies. This lovely instrument with its technical innovations will significantly enhance the capacity of research at the Institute of Healthy Ageing to understand the causes of ageing.

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CBER's contribution to WWF’s conservation technology

CBER’s Rory Gibb and Ella Browning (under Kate Jones’ guidance) wrote and provided guidelines for the World Wildlife Fund on best practice on using the audio and camera trap data. This information is crucial for new researchers or external companies who are investing in such technology or using it to make informed decisions with nature at the forefront. Please visit WWF's website for further information.
WWF is the world’s leading independent conservation organisation.

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UGI welcomes Dr Aida Andres

UCL Genetics Institute is pleased to welcome Dr Aida Andres, the new Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Genetics.

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Congratulations to Dr Elvira Mambetisaeva on becoming a Fellow of Higher Education Academy

Elvira who is a Teaching Fellow in GEE and a Program Tutor for the MSc Genetics of Human Disease was awarded the UCL Arena Fellowship and a Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. The certificate was presented on 18th September at the UCL Arena Awards celebration event by UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur.

UCL Arena is a continuing professional development scheme, accredited by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which focuses on advancing research-based education for all students. It gives lecturers and teaching fellows the chance to gain both a UCL Arena Fellowship and the corresponding HEA Fellowship.

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Dr Richard Pearson receives British Ecological Society award

We are pleased to announce Dr Richard Pearson (GEE/CBER) has been awarded British Ecological Society’s 2017 Marsh Award for Climate Change Research. The prize is awarded for an outstanding contribution to climate change research and is open to ecologists from anywhere in the world.

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Professor Mark Thomas receives Top Teacher Award 2016 – 17

We are delighted to announce Professor Mark Thomas has won a Top Teacher award for Year 2 (Genetics, Development & Cancer).
Throughout the academic year UCL medical students are able to nominate teachers who have been particularly helpful or inspiring to them during their studies for a Top Teacher award. At the end of the academic year, the QAU counts the number of nominations for each teacher and the ones with the most nominations receive an award.

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Biases of acoustic indices measuring biodiversity in urban areas

Ecoacoustic monitoring uses the sounds emitted by wildlife as a proxy measure for biodiversity. Massive volumes of ecoacoustic data can now be generated using passive acoustic recorders, but extracting useful information about the biodiversity sounds recorded in this data is unfeasible without automated methods. Acoustic indices (AIs) are algorithms which generate community-level measures of biodiversity, such as activity, diversity and disturbance, from audio data. However, the suitability of ecoacoustics for monitoring urban biodiversity, and the performance of AIs on the noisy audio data typically generated in cities, is unknown.

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Congratulations to this year's promotions and re-banded Professors for their huge contributions to the Department and UCL.

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Hot topic: The conservation value of secondary savannas in the Brazilian Cerrado

Text and photos by Guilherme B. Ferreira
As an ecologist I’m familiar with the term ‘secondary forest’, but ‘secondary savanna’ is a much more obscure concept. So, how should we name an area of Cerrado – the Brazilian savanna – that has regenerated after clearcut?  And more importantly, what’s the biodiversity relevance of these areas of regenerated Cerrado?
The answer to the first question, according to a recent review, is that the secondary concept (as well as the old growth one) should be equally applied to forests, savannas and grasslands. Answering the second question is much trickier, though. The regeneration and succession in Cerrado vegetation has been studied at some locations; in general it follows a path from open to dense vegetation, with an increase in tree and shrub density and a decrease in the herbaceous cover. However, while we have an idea of the differences in vegetation composition and structure between old growth and secondary savanna vegetation in the Cerrado, there is virtually no study comparing the fauna that lives in these two different environments.
To start filling this gap in knowledge we conducted a camera trap survey in a Cerrado protected area harbouring large areas of secondary as well as old growth savanna. Our study area is a perfect site to investigate the effects of secondary savanna on biodiversity because more than 1/3 of its 310 km2 have naturally regenerated after clearcut, while large portions of the state park have been kept in its natural state with little human interference.

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Smart detectors to monitor urban bat life

The activity of urban bats in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London is being monitored in real-time using new, automated smart detectors that have been developed and installed by UCL and Intel scientists in collaboration with Arup, the Bat Conservation Trust and the London Wildlife Trust.
The story is also featured on BBC News website and BBC Radio.

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BBSRC Responsive Mode award success

Please join us in congratulating Max Reuter (GEE) as well as his co-PIs Jürg Bähler (GEE), Doug Speed (UGI) and Dan Jeffares (York) who have been awarded a 3-year BBSRC Responsive Mode award. The project will use yeast to look at the interaction between the genetics underlying environmental responses and the capacity to adapt to abrupt changes in growth conditions (‘evolutionary rescue’). The findings will help us to better understand the capacity of populations to deal with climate change, but also serve as a model to design optimal treatment strategies for antibiotics or pesticides.

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Linda Partridge on How to Live Longer (BBC4)

UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing director Professor Dame Linda Partridge was recently invited to appear on the BBC4 programme ’The Big Think – How to Live Longer’.

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Dr Conrad King (1936-2017), former Senior Lecturer, UCL

It is sad to report that Conrad King who was a Senior Lecturer in Zoology in the Department of Biology died in his sleep (23rd March), in Venice where he was living with his partner Wendy Rees. Conrad had an extremely wide circle of friends & colleagues in UCL and in the international scientific community. Anyone wishing to share their memories, please contact Hugh White (hawhite@blueyonder.co.uk).

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Congratulations Dr Anna Czarkwiani on her PhD Viva Success

Anna successfully defended her thesis entitled 'Towards a gene regulatory network for the regeneration of the adult skeleton in the brittle star Amphiura filiformis’  Many congratulations Dr Czarkwiani!

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DNA analyses of wild pollinators provide a simple solution to reverse their declining populations

Bumblebees are among the most popular and widely recognised insect pollinators. Remarkably, we lack an understanding of some of the basic and fundamental aspects of bumblebee ecology and so our ability to manage the landscape to help reverse declines in the populations is limited.

A team led by scientists at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, working with researchers from the University of East Anglia, ZSL (Zoological Society of London), University of Bristol and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, UCL, combined genetic analyses with land scape ecology and modelling to  to reveal some of the previously hidden details of the ecology and genetic structure of queen and worker bumblebees, and their relationships with habitat variables, such as the availability of flowers. The genetics component of the work was led by Dr Seirian Sumner, in CBER, GEE.

By creating statistical models of the probability of year-on-year survival they demonstrated that survival of a bumblebee lineage from one year to the next was significantly related to the coverage of both spring and summer flower resources in the surroundings of the colony. These findings, published in Nature, suggest that agricultural landscapes must provide year-round resources if they are to be truly beneficial for their resident bumblebee populations.

These findings are applicable to anyone wishing to manage farmland, or indeed their own back gardens, in a bumblebee-friendly way. In particular, they offer effective management advice for conservation and show that conservation interventions that increase floral resources at a landscape scale and throughout the season have positive effects on wild pollinators in agricultural landscapes.

Read the story behind the publication

Image © L. Hulmes

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European Research Council (ERC) week: UCL celebrates its funding successes

UCL celebrates its funding success during the ERC's 10th Anniversary Week and highlights several years of ULC achievements in attracting ERC funding including a case study of Professor Judith Mank, ERC recipient of both an ERC Starting grant and an ERC Consolidator grant.  See UCL News for full story. 

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BBSRC grant success for Ziheng Yang's group to study Phylogeographic inference using genomic sequence data under the multispecies coalescent model

Ziheng has been awarded a three-year BBSRC grant (£399K) to work on "Phylogeographic inference using genomic sequence data under the multispecies coalescent model".  Dr Xiyun Jiao is hired as a postdoc on the grant.  Xiyun finished a PhD in statistics from Imperial, working on smart MCMC algorithms.  She will be joining Ziheng's group on 1 May 2017.

Also Dr Tomas Flouri will be joining Ziheng's group on the same day as a postdoc on another BBSRC grant.  Tomas has a PhD in theoretical computer science, and has been working on RAxML and PLL (phylogenetic likelihood library) in Professor Alexis Stamatakis's group.

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Raising Horizons exhibition

Raising Horizons is a temporary photographic exhibition organised by TrowelBlazers in collaboration with photographer Leonora Saunders. It features contemporary female scientists photographed as their historical counterparts to draw attention to the diversity of women in science and the often underappreciated contributions of women to science. 
Division of Biosciences is proud to announce Professor Anjali Goswami is one of the participants photographed dressed as turn-of-the-century Dorothea Bate, a mammalian palaeobiologist and the first female scientist employed by the NHM.

Date: 1-28 February 2017
Time: 9.30 - 5.30
Venue: the Geological Society Lower Library

Further exhibition details can be found on the Geological Society website: https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Raising-Horizons

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Obituary E. B. Robson, PhD. Galton Professor of Human Genetics, University College London (1928- 2016) died July 18th 2016

Bette Robson was an important figure in the development of our understanding of human genetics and gene mapping for a period of more than 40 years.  She retired from the Galton Chair in 1993.

After obtaining a 1st Class Hons BSc in Zoology, University of Durham her first research was done in the Galton Laboratory at University College London (UCL) in 1950-53.  Lionel Penrose was Head of Department and she did a PhD on the knotty topic of human birth weight and stabilising selection, which is still a significant area of research.  This was followed by a year with a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in the USA, principally at Columbia University, NYC with Professors L. C. Dunn and T. Dobzhansky. After returning to the Galton laboratory She also learnt a great deal from the very wide circle of scientists, doctors and others who frequented ‘The Galton’ in those days.  She moved from UCL to work with Harry Harris at the London Hospital Medical School in 1957, to broaden her experience and develop new techniques to identify human genes.  This work was based on Oliver Smithies’ new invention of starch gel electrophoresis and genetic analysis of human haptoglobins.  

This work was very successful and led directly to the formation of a new Medical Research Council Unit, in Kings College London, in 1962, with Harry Harris as Unit director.  Bette introduced two-dimensional electrophoresis of human pseudo-cholinesterase (E1) and discovered a new polymorphism (Nature 1962, 196, 1296-1298).  Within a few years she also had evidence of linkage between this enzyme (E1) and the transferrin (Tf) locus (Ann Hum Genet. 1966, 29, 325).  Also with David Hopkinson, she set up a large international consortium to carry out linkage analysis (Am. J. Hum. Genet. 1965, 17,109) on the recently discovered red cell acid phosphatase polymorphism (Nature 1963. 163,199).  Working directly with Harry Harris she carried out fundamental new work on the genetics of human placental alkaline phosphatase (Nature 1965. 207, 1257; Ann Hum. Genet. 1967. 30)  

At about this time, Lionel Penrose retired and Harry Harris was appointed Galton Professor at UCL.   A new Research building at UCL, Wolfson House, funded by the Wolfson Foundation, provided new homes for the Galton laboratory and the MRC Human Biochemical Research Unit in UCL.  

Bette was delighted to move from Kings College London and was able to continue extensive gene assignment and gene mapping projects which involved widespread collaborations.  She published one of the two first papers that mapped a gene to a human autosome in 1969, the assignment of the alpha locus of the human haptoglobin gene to chromosome 16 (Nature 1969. 223, 1163-5).  There were also many new collaborations within UCL as other colleagues and collaborators moved in to share the excitement and the new laboratories.
For example, during this period Bette enjoyed extra help from Peter Cook with his ideas and expertise in Gene Mapping, Gerald Corney brought expertise on twins and family studies and the MRC Blood Group Unit (Directors Ruth Sanger & Patricia Tippet) moved in to Wolfson House with extra knowledge and resources.  There were also many connections with ‘outside’ friends such as Walter Bodmer’s Unit at ICRF & Oxford, John Evans in Edinburgh and numerous other research groups in the UK and overseas, as gene mapping projects began to expand across the world.  

Harry Harris remained in post till 1976 when he moved to Philadelphia and in 1978 Bette became Galton Professor.  Over the years, Bette always supported the International Human Gene Mapping (HGM) workshops which brought together all the relevant information every 2 years from 1973 to 1991, by submitting data, chairing the overall summaries for many different chromosomes and robustly participating in the discussions.  She also enjoyed the less formal social aspects of these remarkable gatherings.  Apart from the exciting new science at the Los Angeles work shop in 1982 she was delighted to see so many lively young scientists attending. She encouraged her own post graduate students and young   postdocs to go to these workshops and present their own data.  Recent letters from former students have commented that her supervision was rigorous but in the end very supportive and enabling.  Senior colleagues were many times guided by the clear critical thinking and sharp wit of her advice.  In 1988 Bette became a member of the founding council of the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) described at the time as ‘The UN of the Human Genome’ (Genomics 1989 5:385).

She also took on extra responsibilities at UCL for organising undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of Human Genetics in UCL and mentoring students.  She enjoyed advising and helping these students and many of them stayed on in UCL and remained good friends for years.  She also enjoyed cultural interests outside science and was happy to encourage this both in staff and students. She had a love for Italy and all things Italian with many Italian friends. She was an enthusiastic gardener at home and agreed to serve as one of the original Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) at Kew in October 1983, when the Board was first created, and served there for 8 years.

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Congratulations to Dr Lucy Van Dorp

Congratulation to Dr Lucy Van Dorp on the successful defence of her thesis entitled 'Investigating processes driving genetic diversity in human populations using dense haplotypes'

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Mapping movements of alien bird species

The global map of alien bird species has been produced for the first time by a UCL-led team of researchers. It shows that human activities are the main determinants of how many alien bird species live in an area but that alien species are most successful in areas already rich with native bird species.

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High-sugar diet programmes a short lifespan in flies

Flies with a history of eating a high sugar diet live shorter lives, even after their diet improves. This is because the unhealthy diet drives long-term reprogramming of gene expression, according to a UCL-led team of researchers
Full story on UCL News Site

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Professor E. B. Robson (1928-2016) former Galton Professor, UCL

Professor E. B. Robson (1928-2016), former Galton Professor, died earlier this year (18 July 2016). We hope to publish an obituary in 2017 and would appreciate recollections from those who knew her. Please contact Professor Sue Povey on s.povey@ucl.ac.uk

(Accompanying image is from Bette’s path-breaking paper with Harry Harris in 1965 (Nature 207, 1257-1259) using gel electrophoresis to uncover alleles of the human alkaline phosphatase gene).

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Congratulations to Dr Arunas Radzvilavicius

Congratulations to Dr Arunas Radzvilavicius on the successful completion of his PhD.  Arunas, jointly supervised by Professor Andrew Pomiankowski and Dr Nick Lane, successfully defended his thesis "Evolutionary Dynamics of Mitochondrial Mutations in the Origin and Development of Eukaryotic Sex" subject to minor corrections.  The examiners were Prof Richard Goldstein (UCL) and Professor Tom Richards (Exeter).

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Developing Next Generation Social Sciences

Alex Stewart along with a scientific team University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Princeton and Indiana University has received an award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and validate reproducible methods for studying human social behavior.

DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that invests in breakthrough technologies to support national security. The award is part of DARPA’s new Next Generation Social Science program, or NGS2, which aims to revolutionize the speed, scale and rigor with which social science is performed.

The grant provides the multi-disciplinary team with $2.95 million for two years, with a possible additional $2.3 million for a subsequent one-and-a-half years, dependent on progress, to further the goals of the NGS2 program, a key one being to develop a deeper understanding of the factors that drive the emergence or collapse of collective identity in human populations.

Alexander Stewart, University College London.
Joshua B. Plotkin, University of Pennsylvania
Erol Akçay, University of Pennsylvania
David Rand, Yale University;
Simon Levin, Princeton University;
Johan Bollen, Indiana University

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GEE welcomes Seirian Sumner, Reader in Behavioural Ecology, CBER, UCL

We are delighted to announce that Seirian Sumner, formally a Senior Lecturer at Bristol,  has joined CBER (the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research) as a Reader in Behavioural Ecology. Seirian’s research seeks to to explore the interface between behavioural ecology, biodiversity and conservation. 

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CBER's Tim Newbold awarded prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowship

Dr Newbold's research seeks to understand how habitat loss and climate change together impact the structure and diversity of ecological communities. Habitat loss and climate change are the biggest threats to biodiversity, but the extent to which they might interact in their impacts on biodiversity remains very poorly understood.

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EMBO Young Investigator Christophe Dessimoz

The EMBO Young Investigator Programme provides support for researchers under forty years of age who have set up their first laboratories in the past four years

Christophe is one of 25 life scientists selected to join the programme this year who join a network of 74 current and 382 past Young Investigators and who represent some of the best young group leaders in the life sciences in Europe and beyond.

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Leverhulme funds to study Phylogenetics of Invasion

The award will support a post-doc in Tim Blackburn’s group, Professor of Invasion Biology, CBER.   The study will seek to untangle evolutionary and human historical contexts in the introduction and spread of alien bird species. 

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Professor Thomas receives 2015-16 Top Teacher award

Throughout the academic year UCL medical students are able to nominate teachers who have been particularly helpful or inspiring to them during their studies for a Top Teacher award. At the end of the academic year, the QAU counts the number of nominations for each teacher and the ones with the most nominations receive an award.  This year, Prof Thomas receives a Top Teacher award for Year 2 Genetics, Development & Cancer.

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Nick Lane Awarded Faraday Medal

Congratulations to Nick Lane on being awarded the 2016 Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture in recognition of his excellent work in communicating science to UK audiences.

Nick will be presented with his medal as part of his prize lecture to be given at the Royal Society in February 2017.

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A federal origin of Stone Age farming

The results of a study carried out by an international team of researchers including GEE/UGI researchers from the Thomas and Hellenthal Groups, found that there were deep genetic differences in early farming populations, indicating very distinct ancestries.
- See more

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Biodiversity falls below ‘safe levels’ globally

A study, published today in Science, led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development."This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL-CBER and previously at UNEP-WCMC.

Further reading

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PhD success for James Howie

Congratulations to James Howie who successfully passed his PhD viva held on Thursday 19 May. His thesis is on "Female mate choice and male ornamentation in the stalk-eyed fly, Diasemopsis meigenii” and was supervised by Prof. Kevin Fowler and Prof. Andrew Pomiankowski.

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GEE PIs awarded “Sea and Currents” funds for international initiatives

The successful applications were chosen according to how well they fit the criteria: potential for the future, fit with the Global Engagement strategic plan, benefit to UCL and the Faculty and making a difference in some significant way to research, education or other aspects of life. Of the 7 successful applicants from across the Faculty two are in GEE.  

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Georgina Mace has been awarded the 2016 Heineken Prize for Environmental Science

Georgina Mace will receive the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences for developing scientific criteria for the world’s most comprehensive list of threatened species and for establishing priorities for nature conservation. She made a major contribution to the notion that healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are natural capital that render important services to humans, which is now a central concept in the nature management debate.

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