UCL Division of Biosciences


GEE Seminar - Prof. Paul Rainey, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

05 September 2023, 12:00 pm–1:00 pm

Title: 'Experimental Evolution of Evolvability'

Event Information

Open to

UCL staff | UCL students | UCL alumni




Amy Godfrey


Roberts Building

Academic Host: Wenying Shou
Abstract: The study of evolution typically focusses on cellular responses to contemporary environments. However, natural selection often acts over timescales longer than the doubling time of individual cells, thus shaping properties that determine the long-term success of lineages. One property critical for long-term success is capacity to generate adaptive variation via genetic change. If capacity is limited, then no matter how well individual cells perform in the current environment, extinction is likely in future environments.  I will describe work – from Michael Barnett – in which experimental lineages of bacteria were subjected to repeated bouts of reverse phenotypic evolution. The regime involved selection working both on cells, and on lineages of cells. The ensuing lineage-level birth-death process meant lineages were units of selection in their own right, thus rendering possible the emergence of traits adaptive at the lineage level. After more than fifty evolutionary reversals, one lineage swept to fixation on account of enhanced capacity to anticipate future environmental change. To understand the genetic basis, more than 500 mutations were identified and ordered. This revealed birth of a “contingency” locus that, via slipped-stranded mispairing, allowed reliable anticipation of future environmental conditions. Drawing upon detailed knowledge of the evolutionary history of this lineage I will recount key steps underpinning birth of the locus (and curious failures). I will further discuss experiments that demonstrate the locus to be adaptive, readily responsive to alterations in the frequency of environmental change, and show that it played a primary role in facilitating further adaptive changes that improved ecological performance of focal lineages. 

About the Speaker

Professor Paul Rainey

at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

Born 1962 in New Zealand. Bachelors, masters and PhD at the University of Canterbury, UK. From 1989 until 2005 he was based in the UK where most of his time was as researcher and then professor at the University of Oxford. He began transitioning back to New Zealand in 2003, firstly as Chair of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Auckland, in 2007 he moved to the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study as one of its founding professors. Paul Rainey is currently Director of the Department of Microbial Population Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (since 2017), Professor at ESPCI in Paris, and he retains an adjunct professorial position at the NZIAS in Auckland. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a Member of EMBO and honorary professor at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel (since 2019). Director and Scientific Member of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön

More about Professor Paul Rainey