Milner Centre for Evolution

Researchers and students blog about their activities in this unique cross-faculty research centre bridging biology, health and education.

Darwin Day 2018

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Yesterday, a fascinating lecture was given at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) by Prof Mark Pagel FRS entitled: ‘The Evolution of Language – Darwin would approve’.

Prof Pagel contrasted animal communication with human language and how speech has evolved and adapted much like biological species. Bringing together concepts of hominid evolution and contemporary evidence Prof Pagel described how language led to the dominance of modern humans over our close ancestors the Neanderthals, the genetic traits that exist because of language, and the future for the many languages that are still spoken.




Why we care about emerging the fungal disease Candida auris

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Candida auris is a fungal disease that is emerging around the world and in the UK. It was only discovered and described in 2009, but since then it has been found in at least 15 countries, including 20 NHS trusts and 35 hospitals in the UK. While many new diseases generate both dismissive ‘not another one’ attitudes and ‘the end is nigh’ hysteria, fungal diseases rarely cause much of a ripple in public health compared to viruses or bacteria. However, there are several major reasons C. aruis represents a significant concern for those trying to keep the UK population healthy.

The early indications are that many of the infections it causes are life threatening, and it has characteristics that raise serious concern over the short and long term efficacy of antifungal drugs. Of the over 200 cases in the UK since 2016, more than 10% have been systemic bloodstream infections, typically the most serious kind of fungal infection. These systemic infections known as candidemia or fungemia are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. The persistent, localised and high mortality cases that have made up the bulk of the reported infections across the world are probably hospital acquired. Being acquired in the hospital puts the most vulnerable patients right in the way of C. auris. Patients with weakened immune systems and those requiring treatment for other diseases are the ones most likely to get C. auris infections. Even more troubling, some strains of C. auris appear to have natural resistance to all three classes of antifungal drugs. There are limited antifungal options in the clinic, and a hospital transmissible multidrug-resistant strain is quite threatening. If C. auris is able to persist in hospitals, then drug resistant strains may repeatedly emerge, and hospitals might become breeding grounds for the worst strains.

Compared to many other fungi, the emergence of this pathogen is occurring at a surprising pace. The earliest identifiable case of C. auris was found to be from 1996 a case originally thought to be a yeast. However, the recent outbreaks mostly from 2013-2017 across the world appear to stem from few origins with local strains being highly similar, suggests C. auris is either a rapidly spreading novel pathogen or is being newly pushed to emerge via new clinical conditions. Although there is good evidence for rapid spread of fungal diseases of animals and plants, there is virtually no precedence for a rapidly spreading fungal disease of humans. Most fungal diseases of humans are environmentally acquired and their spread tracks events in the environment rather than the clinic. Although, the sudden emergence of fungal diseases associated with the global AIDS epidemic appeared very rapid, the fungi themselves were already present. It remains to be determined what the driving factor is behind the rapid emergence of C. auris, but health agencies across the world are on the alert for new outbreaks and research is very active.

Finally, because it is a very recently discovered fungal disease, we know very little about its abilities and vulnerabilities. Studies so far have found that C. auris may display traits associated with virulence similar to other fungi such as biofilm formation and the production of protein degrading enzymes, but because scientists are only just beginning work with this fungus there are a lot of unknowns. It is not yet clear which if any specific traits enable C. auris to invade hosts or if strains differ in virulence. Similarly, although the evidence supports C. auris being resistant to antifungals, the mechanisms of resistance remain unknown. In the bigger picture, key questions remain. Where is C. auris from? Are the clinical strains different from strains outside the clinic? What is the route of transmission, if any, within and between hospitals? These unknowns make C. auris challenging for professionals and disconcerting for the public.

Last week was the first Fungal Disease Awareness Week set aside by the CDC, it is a good time to think about fungal diseases as a whole. C. auris is certainly not the only fungal disease or the one with the biggest impact on people in the UK or globally, but it is a piece of the picture. Because of its recent emergence, drug resistance, and within hospital transmission, C. auris is putting the community on alert and prompting more people to Think Fungus.


Bird supermoms

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by Tamás Székely


Motherhood is full of challenges. Mums need to look after not only themselves but also their offspring: mothers make sure the young have good food, healthy and develop well, and they need to shelter the young from harsh environment, nasty neighbours and hungry predators. In addition, mums need to keep a watchful eye on their partners: as an eminent neurobiologist puts it, from the mother’s point of view the husband is just yet another – not necessarily grown-up – offspring.

Blacksmith plover mothers fiercely protect their nest from snakes, monitor lizards and warthogs. Credit: Tamas Székely

Blacksmith plover mothers fiercely protect their nest from snakes, monitor lizards and warthogs. Credit: Tamas Székely

Birds stand out from the animal kingdom by having family life reminiscent of humans. In the vast majority of bird families the mother and the father share the domestic chores: they build the nest together and take turns keeping the eggs warm. Whilst sitting on a bunch of eggs does not sound hard work, if you have ever been locked up in a tiny room for months (like hornbill females do) – you know that it’s not fun – even though you got fed by your mate.

Once the babies pop out of eggs, the life of mums change: in about half of bird species they gather food around the nest and deliver them to the hungry chicks. Feeding 10-12 rapidly growing babies that seem to have insatiable demand is not a simple task: parents make hundreds of trips each day to bring the food home. In about 150 bird species the parents’ job is eased by their former offspring that stay at home and help rearing the next batch of offspring: instead of leaving home and seeking their own nest, these adolescents prefer to stay put. Indeed, in these cooperatively breeding species several generation live under the same roof – as humans did for millennia.

Southern Hornbill

Female hornbills, including the southern yellow-billed hornbills, seal themselves inside a large cavity by blocking the entry with mud. Whilst she incubates the eggs and rears the young, the male provides food for the whole family. Credit: Tamas Székely

In the other half of bird species the babies are lot more independent from start. In plovers, quails, rails and grouse the chicks start feeding themselves shortly after hatching from the eggs. In some species this means picking seeds from the ground whereas in others the chicks catch agile prey such as flies and tiny midges. This is one of the amazing aspects of bird life: this feat corresponds to a human baby catching fast running lizards at just a  few days old.

In nearly all bird species, however, the mums keep a watchful eye whilst the offspring develop. It’s a dangerous life out there: the world is full of snakes, raptors and carnivores that seek out the ever-growing chicks. Once a predator shows up around the nest, mum steps in: she warns her babies to keep silent whilst she is luring the predator away from the nest by pretending she is injured and thus an easy prey to catch. There are many unsung heroines here: lapwings, terns and skuas attack chick-hungry predators that are a hundred times  larger than themselves, and more often than not, their vicious attacks force the intruder to back off.

So which bird species has the supermoms? It’s probably one of the 200 species of ducks, grouse, hummingbirds and songbirds where only the female does all parental chores: she works immensely hard to nurture, protect and teach her offspring so that her fledged young are prepared for the hard life that’s out there. But when the going gets really tough and breeding takes place in a superharsh environment such as in blistering deserts or in freezing barren valleys of Antarctica where a single parent is unable to cope with all pressures, even supermoms need someone to share the chores.


For details of Professor Tamás Székely’s research on bird behaviour and ecology see


Full house Darwin Day Lecture

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This year's Darwin day lecture was delivered by Professor Nick Davies FRS (Cambridge University). In his talk, entitled ‘Cuckoo – cheating by nature’, Prof Davies described one of nature’s most intriguing stories to a packed lecture theatre at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Captivating photographic and video footage showed how some cuckoo species lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and how little warblers are tricked into feeding enormous cuckoo chicks. In his talk, Prof Davies described how 30 years of elegant field experiments have revealed a continuing evolutionary arms race in which escalating host defences have selected for remarkable cuckoo trickery, including different guises in female cuckoos, forgeries of host eggs and manipulative begging by cuckoo chicks. This is a fascinating corner of Darwin's "entangled bank" where organisms are continually adapting to keep up with changes in their rivals. Many thanks to all those who helped to make this event such a great success.



Darwin’s 208th birthday was celebrated with a children’s workshop on Evolution at BRLSI

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Yesterday was the 208th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate it, than to children learn about natural selection, sing happy birthday to Darwin and eat some delicious cake?


The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) very kindly hosted Dr. Paula Kover (a reader in the Milner Centre for Evolution), Lucy Eaton, Lauren  and Amy  (final year Biology undergraduates doing research in science education) to run a workshop on Inheritance and evolution, called “The evolution show”. The children, volunteers and us had a great time, playing Chinese whispers with DNA sequence to learn about mutation, building birds and seeing how mutation and inheritance can make the bird become better at flying with the help of natural selection. The children loved seeing the tree of life, that shows the evolutionary relationship among all major groups of organisms, and discover that a T.rex barbecue was likely to taste like chicken!

Organizing workshops for young children (audience were 8 to 10 years old) is always a big challenge, because it needs to make evolution accessible and fun.  This time, it involved a lot of last-minute laminating, photo copying, and a mad dash around all the local supermarkets for numbered candles (Have they gone out of fashion?).  But it was all worth it, since 69% of the children attending the workshop gave us a score of 9 out of 10,  or higher.  Also, the undergraduate students that helped had a good experience, and are ready for some more teaching of evolution to young kids in primary schools this term.


Measuring how far the bird flew.


Digging for fossils


Exploring evolutionary trees

For more information on educational resources run by the Milner Centre for Evolution see here. And  Dr. Paula Kover also offers a wealth of resources for primary schools - see here.


Chasing (bird) chicks on a tropical island: all in a day’s work for a bird biologist

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Third year BSc Biology students, Romy Rice and Noemie Engel, write about their experiences on placement from September to December 2016 working for the Maio Biodiversity Foundation in the Cape Verde islands.

Noemie and Romy

Noemie Engel (left) and Romy Rice

In September 2016, we embarked on an adventure to Maio, a seemingly uneventful little island in Cape Verde with only 8,000 inhabitants, which turned out to be one of the most lively places we have ever experienced. With untouched beaches stretching for kilometres, vibrant yet quaint villages, and incredibly friendly people, we immediately fell in love with the place. We worked for a local NGO, the Maio Biodiversity Foundation (FMB), carrying out fieldwork for 3 months with a small shorebird, the Kentish Plover, as part of our university placement year.


Studying the Atlantic cod microbiome in Oslo

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As announced last year, the University of Bath has founded The Milner Centre for Evolution, after receiving a generous £5 million donation from Bath alumnus Dr Jonathon Milner. The centre is partnered with the University of Oslo's Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), which has been at the forefront of ecological and evolutionary research for a number of years. This partnership will enable collaborations between experts from the two universities, and also give young scientists the opportunity to travel and perform research in different environments. As such, I am very grateful to the University of Bath for awarding me funding for a five week research stay at the University of Oslo (CEES), under the Future Research Leaders Incubator Scheme.

So, why am I here? Some of you may have heard about a relatively new field of research into bacterial communities - such communities are known as a 'microbiome'. These microbiomes are generally comprised of many bacterial species, and so are shaped by the interactions between these species, their hosts, and the environment. It has recently been estimated that there are as many bacterial cells living in or on our body as human cells 1. Just think about that for a second. These bacteria are not merely passengers within our bodies, rather they play an important role in maintaining our health. There is increasing evidence that imbalances in our microbiome are linked with poorly understood diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and some cancers 2. Although much of this research is uncertain, it shows great promise in helping us to understand these diseases. Despite active research into the human microbiome, there has been little focus on microbiomes from other organisms. I am spending my time in Oslo studying the cod microbiome (in particular the Atlantic cod).

Why are cod important? Atlantic cod are widely consumed, commercially important fish; as a result their numbers have repeatedly suffered from overfishing. They are long-lived (up to 25 years), large (up to 2m long, and 95 kg in weight), and wide-ranging. Populations are found off the shores of the Northeastern USA, Greenland, and most of Northwestern Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the Arctic Circle. Some populations are coastal, whilst others, such as the Northeast Arctic cod (referred to as skrei, a Norwegian name meaning the wanderer) live much further out to sea. These populations are genetically distinct, and show adaptations to their different environments 3–5. But what about their microbiomes? Do different populations vary in their microbiomes? If so, do these differences help to protect against different environmental stresses? Could we use this information to improve monitoring of the health of cod populations? These are the questions I am trying to answer during my stay. This is made possible by combining bacterial genomics expertise at the University of Bath with cod genomics expertise at the University of Oslo.

  1. Sender, R., Fuchs, S. & Milo, R. Revised estimates for the number of human and bacteria cells in the body. bioRxiv 036103 (2016). doi:10.1101/036103
  2. Cho, I. & Blaser, M. J. The human microbiome: at the interface of health and disease. Nat. Rev. Genet. 13, 260–270 (2012).
  3. Sodeland, M. et al. 'Islands of divergence' in the Atlantic cod genome represent polymorphic chromosomal rearrangements. Genome Biol. Evol. (2016). doi:10.1093/gbe/evw057
  4. Berg, P. R. et al. Adaptation to Low Salinity Promotes Genomic Divergence in Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua L.). Genome Biol. Evol. 7, 1644–1663 (2015).
  5. Karlsen, B. O. et al. Genomic divergence between the migratory and stationary ecotypes of Atlantic cod. Mol. Ecol. 22, 5098–5111 (2013).