Milner Centre for Evolution

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

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).