GEE News

The Vital Question. Why is life the way it is?

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The Vital Question

Why is life the way it is? Bacteria evolved into complex life just once in four billion years of life on earth - and all complex life shares many strange properties, from sex to ageing and death. If life evolved on other planets, would it be the same or completely different?

In The Vital Question, Nick Lane radically reframes evolutionary history,putting forward a cogent solution to conundrums that have troubled scientists for decades. The answer, he argues, lies in energy: how all life on Earth lives off a voltage with the strength of a bolt of lightning. In unravelling these scientific enigmas, making sense of life's quirks, Lane's explanation provides a solution to life's vital questions: why are we as we are, and why are we here at all?

This is ground-breaking science in an accessible form, in the tradition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

Predicting the dynamics of African ecosystems under multiple pressures

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Ben Collen has been awarded £300,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a project entitled ‘Predicting the dynamics of African ecosystems under multiple pressures’. Ecology requires models to understand the processes shaping ecosystems and ecological communities, to assess the impact of the many drivers of biotic change and to guide policy interventions. In this interdisciplinary project, we will directly address this need by developing and testing a fine-scale ecosystem model for continental Africa, which captures the interaction between ecological systems, the Earth system and the socio-economic system. Biological science has been effective at tracking recent changes in nature. It has been poor at predicting future changes and why they matter to the biosphere and humans. This project tackles those challenges.

New research into the genetic structure of the British population

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Dr Garrett Hellenthal talks to Sky News about new research into the genetic structure of the British population and tells the real story of how the British Isles were first populated. 

Natural diversity in fission yeast extends the power of simple genetic model organism

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The fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe is an important model system for eukaryotic cell and molecular biology, but almost all the research has used one laboratory strain. A multidisciplinary team lead by Daniel Jeffares in Jürg Bähler’s group in GEE has completed a study that uncovers the diversity in this species at the genetic level, and at the level of multiple cellular features. This effort involved 42 researchers from 12 different institutions, including 5 other groups at GEE and UGI.

In research published in Nature Genetics, they sequenced the genomes of all available fission yeast strains. With this data they showed that the dispersal of this yeast began within human antiquity (~340 BCE), possibly associated with the distribution of fermented beverages. It reached the Americas only at ~1623 CE, about the time of the European colonization of this region.

They also show that the same techniques that are used to describe the human diseases, genome wide association studies (GWAS), can be applied very effectively to this yeast because of the tightly controlled experimental conditions. They described over 70 traits for each strain, including cell shape, size, growth rates in dozens of different conditions. The team then drilled down to discover genetic variants that influence many of these traits. This information enriches our understanding of this yeast, and it also provides a powerful tool to understand the complex nature of how genetic variation affects health and disease, something that is still not well understood in any species.

Man v Milk

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Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) helps to explain how the ability to drink milk forged the course of human evolution... Listen on BBC World Service's The Food Chain (from 5 mins 56 secs)

Human activity puts Earth’s systems at risk

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A paper coauthored by CBER's Director, Professor Georgina Mace, was published in Science today.  See UCL News Article for further details.

Anjali Goswami awarded 1.5m euros ERC grant

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Anjali Goswami has been awarded 1.5m euros by the ERC to fund work on analysing diversity with a phenomic approach: to analyse modularity (relationships among phenotypic traits driven by genetic, developmental, and functional interactions), morphological disparity, and evolutionary rates across all 1700 families of living and extinct tetrapods (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) over the last 300 million years and through three mass extinctions, using 3-D imaging, surface morphometrics and new tools for multivariate data collection and analysis.

Dr Goswamin has also been awarded a Leverhulme grant (£122,319) for the project entitled Untangling the enigmatic origins of placental mammals with fossils and genomics (co-I, Ziheng Yang): to reconstruct the phylogenetic relationships of placental mammals and their extinct relatives with a large morphological and molecular dataset, followed by analyses of evolutionary rates through their early radiation, particularly around the Cretaceous-Palaeogene mass extinction.

Christophe Dessimoz awarded a 4‐year BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship

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Christophe Dessimoz (Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment and Department of Computer Science) was awarded a 4‐year BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship for the project " Computational Inference of Gene Function in Crop Genomes using Hierarchical Orthologous Groups" in partnership with Bayer CropScience. The project aims at developing new reliable methods to propagate high-quality functional data within and across agronomically-relevant crop species.

More information on the Dessimoz Lab website or on Twitter

Congratulations Dr Peart

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 Congratulations to Claire Peart who has successfully defended her thesis entitled "Detecting a signature of adaptive radiation in Lake Tanganyika catfishes".  We also wish Claire all our very best of wishes in her 2-year funded post-doc position in the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Uppsala University.

BBSRC Excellence Award for Linda Partridge

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IHA Director, Prof Linda Partridge, has been recognised with a BBSRC Anniversary Award for Excellence in Bioscience.

David Murrell promoted to Senior Lecturer

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Congratulations to Dr David Murrell who will be promoted to Senior Lecturer as part of this year's academic and research promotions round.  Promotions will take effect from 1st October.

Analysis by Dr Oliver Davis and collaborators show the correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component

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The analysis published in Nature Communications, show, using twin and genome-wide analysis, that there is a substantial genetic component to children’s ability in reading and mathematics, and estimate that around one half of the observed correlation in these traits is due to shared genetic effects (so-called Generalist Genes). Thus, the results highlight the potential role of the learning environment in contributing to differences in a child’s cognitive abilities at age twelve.

See UCL News for more background details and information.

Judith Mank receives the ZSL Scientific Medal

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Prof Judith Mank

Judith Mank, GEE Professor of Evolutionary and Comparative Biology, was presented with the ZSL Scientific Medal by the Zoological Society London at their annual awards ceremony on 17 June.

Recent PhD successes

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A number of PhD students in GEE have successfully defended their theses in recent months.  Many congratulations to them.  They are:

Congratulations Stephen Montgomery who has been awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

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Early Career Fellowships aim to provide career development opportunities for those who are at a relatively early stage of their academic careers, but who have a proven record of research. The expectation is that Fellows should undertake a significant piece of publishable work during their tenure, and that the Fellowships should lead to a more permanent academic position.

The 3-year fellowship will allow Stephen to continue his research on evolutionary neurobiology in tropical butterflies.

GEE / UGI Researcher, Garrett Hellenthal, awarded BBSRC New Investigator Award

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Garrett Hellenthal

The aim of the BBSRC New Investigator Award is to assist newly employed university lecturers, and researchers at BBSRC-sponsored, and certain other research institutes in their first open-ended appointments to obtain their first research grant.

Garrett has received £500K in funding, including a three-year post-doctoral researcher. He will be working in collaboration with GEE Professors David Balding and Mark Thomas, Dr Neil Bradman and researchers from Addis Ababa University, Cambridge and Harvard.  The project entitled "Evolutionary processes shaping genetic structure in Ethiopia and the Sudans" is a three year project that involves genotyping 2,000 individuals (from samples stored at UCL) to learn about the ancestral history of >90 different ethnic/regional groups from Ethiopia and the Sudans.

The project will develop novel statistical methodology to identify which geographical and sociological (e.g. language, religion) features contribute most to genetic diversity -- or act as barriers to gene flow -- among different human groups. The project will also assess genetic diversity in this part of Africa in relation to the rest of the world, helping to dissect the initial migrations of early humans out of Africa when colonizing the rest of the world.

Helen Chatterjee awarded AHRC Grant

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Helen Chatterjee

Dr Helen Chatterjee (GEE) has been awarded a £550,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to investigate the value of museum encounters in social prescribing.  Social prescribing links patients in primary care with local sources of support within the community which can improve their health and wellbeing. The 3 year project, called Museums on Prescription, will target socially isolated, vulnerable and/or lonely older people who will be referred from the NHS and Adult Social Care departments to partner museums in Camden and Kent, including UCL Museums, the British Museum, Sir Johan Soanes Museum, Islington Museum, Canterbury Museums and Galleries and Tunbridge Wells Museums and Gallery. Other partners include AgeUK, Arts Council England, the New Economics Foundation and  the Royal Society for Public Health. The project, which kicks off in July this year, is led by Helen, who is the Principal Investigator, Paul Camic who is a Professor of Psychology & Public Health and a Co-Investigator, at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Dr Linda Thomson (GEE and UCL Museums), who will be the lead Research Associate.

Steve Jones awarded the Stephen Jay Gould Prize

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Steve Jones has been awarded the Stephen Jay Gould Prize in recognition of his efforts in advancing public understanding of evolutionary science.

UCLU Student Choice Teaching Awards - nominations for 2014

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Students have selected their nominees for outstanding teaching in this year's UCLU Student Choice Teaching Awards. 

On the list of nominees this year are Hazel Smith, Astrid Wingler and Richard Pearson from the Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment.

Further details can be viewed on the UCLU website

Congratulations to PhD student Alison Cotton on her publication in Heredity

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The results of PhD student Ali Cotton's research into the presence of meiotic drive and male eyespan, a sexually selected ornamental trait in wild-type stalk-eyed flies (Teleopsis dalmanni), have been published in Heredity (Heredity (2014) 112, 363–369

Ali's PhD Supervisor, Prof Andrew Pomiankowski talks with Geoff Marsh, about the results and their significance.  Listen to the podcast.

Ursula Mittwoch celebrates her 90th with colleagues, past and present

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Ursula Mittwoch 90th - Group Photo

Professor Ursula Mittwoch, possibly one of UCL's longest standing associates, celebrated her 90th birthday with friends and colleagues from GEE, from the former Galton Laboratory and from the wider-UCL academic community.

Nick Lane to receive 2015 Biochemical Society Award

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Biochemical Society Award Image

The award is in recognition of Nick Lane's sustained and diverse contribution to the molecular life sciences, with a special emphasis on education and the public understanding of science.

See UCL news page for further details

BBC Inside Science: Kate Jones talks about Technology for Nature

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The tools and gadgets available to remotely track animals and monitor populations and their habitats are getting better and more mechanised. Cameras mounted on birds can record where they fly; audio recordings capture bat calls; satellite images monitoring habitat change. However all this digital data needs to be analysed. Professor Kate Jones, an expert on biodiversity at University College London, thinks that this is where more technological advances are needed. She wants image recognition programmes to scan through millions of remote camera images, or sound recognition of hundreds of thousands of bat calls to be developed.

Download the podcast

Judging the effects of climate change on extinction may be easier than previously thought

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Published today in Nature Climate Change, a study led by Richard Pearson (UCL Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research) and by Resit Akçakaya (Stony Brook University in New York) shows that climate change may not be fundamentally different from other extinction threats in terms of identifying species in danger of extinction. The study identified factors that predispose species to high extinction risk due to climate change in order to help conservation efforts to classify species that are most in danger.

Press Release

Professor Lorna Casselton CBE FRS (July 1938 – February 2014)

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Lorna Casselton - Old Life Boat House 1965

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Professor Lorna Casselton CBE, FRS, who passed away on the evening of Thursday 13th February.  She was an alumnus of UCL having obtained both her BSc and then her PhD in 1964.  Lorna carried out her PhD on Fungal Genetics under the supervision of Prof Dan Lewis.  

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Page last modified on 23 may 11 12:59