Leading expert in evolutionary medicine speaks in Kiel about sustainable antibiotic therapies

Professor Andrew Read from Penn State University is the keynote speaker at the annual conference "Evolution by the Sea" of the evolutionary biology research initiatives at Kiel University and its partner institutions

The annual conference "Evolution by the Sea", jointly organised by the Clinician Scientist Program in Evolutionary Medicine (CSEM), the Leibniz Science Campus Evolutionary Medicine of the Lung (EvoLUNG) and the DFG Research Training Group (RTG) Translational Evolutionary Research (TransEvo), started in Kiel today, Wednesday 28 September. The meeting will bring together around 80 scientists from the evolutionary research networks at Kiel University and international experts to exchange views on the latest developments in a broad spectrum of evolutionary research.

One of the keynote speakers is Professor Andrew Read from the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences at Penn State University, US. Read co-founded the field of evolutionary medicine and is particularly known for his work on evolution-informed therapies against malaria and sustainable vaccination strategies. For several years, he has also been working on the current antibiotic crisis - one of the major threats to global health, as more and more bacterial pathogens evolve resistance to antibiotics and some infections become difficult to treat. "Andrew Read's research is particularly inspiring for us," emphasises evolutionary biologist Professor Hinrich Schulenburg of Kiel University, spokesperson of the RTG TransEvo and co-organiser of the conference. "Professor Read is one of the few researchers worldwide who focuses on evolution as the cause of the antibiotic crisis in order to develop new sustainable therapies together with colleagues from the medical field," Schulenburg continues. During his keynote lecture, Read will present his latest research results on this topic.

Three conference days on the topic of "evolutionary rescue"

The conference not only deals with the antibiotic crisis, but also focuses on different, evolution-informed strategies to solve the challenges of the Anthropocene. We currently live in a time period, the so-called Anthropocene, that is characterised by dramatic, human-induced environmental changes caused, for example, by intensive agriculture, industrialisation, extensive medical treatments and current climate change. This creates strong selection pressure on natural systems, to which living organisms respond with the process known as evolutionary rescue: They can escape extinction if they are able to adapt through natural selection.

Evolutionary rescue is a challenge for slowly evolving species such as larger animals or humans. Short-lived species such as microorganisms, on the other hand, have an advantage as they can respond rapidly to rapid changes in environmental conditions. The ability or inability for fast adaptation has important consequences: It increases the risk of species extinction and loss of important biodiversity, it can lead to drastic yield losses in agriculture and can threaten human health through rapid evolution of resistance to drugs. "A precise understanding of the selection processes influenced by humans will make it possible in the future to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene, such as the antibiotic crisis, the conservation of natural resources and the security of food production," emphasises Professor Eva Stukenbrock, vice speaker of the RTG TransEvo and co-organiser of the conference. "To this end, it is important to understand the principle of evolutionary rescue as a response to rapidly changing environments and to anchor this view more firmly than before in research and application," Stukenbrock continues.

During the event, participants will discuss in around 20 lectures and additional exchange formats how man-made selection pressure affects the evolution of organisms and how this knowledge can be harnessed for developing sustainable solutions. The discussions focus for example on evolutionary strategies for avoiding resistance during antibiotic or cancer chemotherapy, for conserving fish stocks or preventing resistance in important plant pests. Several invited guests will contribute to the discussions, for example including next to Andrew Read, Professor Iliana Baums from the University of Oldenburg, who presents her newest insights on the ability of corals to adapt to increasing water temperatures. Another highlight of this year's conference is the inclusion of scientists from the non-academic sector, for example pharmaceutical and biotech companies, which emphasizes the importance of linking findings from evolutionary research with practical application.

Excellent evolutionary research in the Kiel area

For several years now, the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) at Kiel University has brought together evolutionary research activities in the Kiel region, which are particularly pronounced at Kiel university, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Borstel Research Centre. Examples of these activities are several large research consortia such as CSEM, EvoLUNG or TransEvo, which are all part of the current annual conference.

"We continue these successful activities and bring together cutting-edge interdisciplinary research on evolution at Kiel University and its partner institutions," emphasises Professor Tal Dagan, board member at KEC. "To this end, it is important to enable evolutionary researchers in the Kiel region to regularly exchange ideas with their colleagues at home and abroad. Our conference offers a particularly visible forum for this indispensable international networking," Dagan continues. Overall, KEC will further develop evolutionary research as another excellent, internationally highly visible scientific field from Kiel University’s priority research area Kiel Life Science (KLS).

Scientific contact:

Prof. Hinrich Schulenburg
Spokesperson RTG TransEvo, Kiel University
+49 (0) 431-880-4141


About the CSEM programme:
The Clinician Scientist Programme in Evolutionary Medicine (CSEM) is led by Professor John Baines from Kiel University’s Faculty of Medicine and is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). CSEM aims in particular to further root evolutionary biological principles in medical research. It also aims to develop sustainable strategies, for example in the fight against treatment resistance in various serious diseases. The focus of CSEM is evolutionary medicine. The principles of evolutionary biological thinking and research are applied in the fields of antibiotic resistance, oncology, skin barrier, inflammation, microbiome and ageing research. For this, biomedical and evolutionary biology knowledge is taught. The aim is to develop sustainable solutions for the major issues in medicine. The focus is, for example, on disease patterns such as inflammatory skin diseases, autoimmune diseases that are caused by a disturbed bacterial colonisation of the body, as well as various cancers. It can already be seen that evolutionary medicine is opening up promising perspectives in these areas. These approaches are to be pursued further and systematically incorporated into medical training. The institutions involved are the Medical Faculty of Kiel University, clinics of the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Kiel Campus, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology (MPI-EB) in Plön and the Lungenclinic Großhansdorf.

About EvoLUNG:
Despite major advances in diagnostics and treatment, lung diseases are on the rise worldwide and are among the most common causes of death. The aim of the Leibniz Science Campus Evolutionary Medicine of the Lung (EvoLUNG) is to better understand the origin and development of chronic lung diseases such as tuberculosis or asthma. To this end, the scientists are working in interdisciplinary teams to investigate the spread and origin of multi-resistant pathogens in the lungs. On the other hand, they are researching the evolution of human gene variants that favour lung diseases, as well as the complex interaction of disease genes, microorganisms, pathogens and environmental factors in the development of lung diseases. In the long term, EvoLUNG aims to develop better diagnostics and improve therapies for diseases such as asthma, tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis or chronic bronchitis. A special focus is on preventing the development of resistance in the course of tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis as well as on a better understanding of the role of the body's own microbiota in the development of asthma. EvoLUNG is led by Professor Stefan Niemann from the Research Centre Borstel (FZB) and, in addition to the FZB, also includes Kiel University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (MPI-EB).

A man giving a talk
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Prof. Andrew Read presented his latest research results on evolution-based strategies to avoid antibiotic resistance in Kiel.

Group photo
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Around 80 scientists are currently discussing the latest developments in a broad spectrum of evolutionary research at the "Evolution by the Sea" conference.

Seminar room
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Focal points of the meeting include evolutionary strategies for avoiding resistance during antibiotic therapy, for conserving fish stocks or preventing resistance in important plant pests.

More information:

About the RTG TransEvo:
The Research Training Group TransEvo at Kiel University funded by the German Research Foundation (RTG 2501). The aim is to investigate and promote the relevance of evolutionary principles to applied problems. Unintended consequences of human intervention often result from actions that influence natural selection, for example the use of antibiotics or cancer drugs in medicine, pesticides in agriculture or human intervention in the Earth's ecosystems. Surprisingly, evolutionary concepts are rarely used to improve our understanding of these applied challenges and to develop new sustainable solutions. The overarching goal of the TransEvo Research Training Group is to train two main competencies in PhD students: using knowledge and concepts from basic evolutionary biology to improve our understanding of current challenges in applied fields, and using the newly gained knowledge to enrich our understanding of evolution.


Press contact:

Christian Urban
Science communication „Kiel Life Science",
Kiel University:
+49 (0) 431-880-1974


About Kiel Life Science (KLS)

The interdisciplinary centre for applied life sciences – Kiel Life Science (KLS) – links research at the CAU from the fields of agricultural and nutritional sciences, the natural sciences and medicine. It forms one of four research focus areas at Kiel University, and is aimed at achieving a better understanding of the cellular and molecular processes with which organisms respond to environmental influences. The research is focussed on issues such as how agricultural crop plants adapt to specific growth conditions, or how illnesses can arise through the interaction of genes, individual lifestyle and environmental factors. Health is always viewed holistically in the context of evolution. Under the research focus’ name, there are currently around 80 scientists from 40 institutes and six faculties from Kiel University working collaboratively as full members.

To Kiel Life Science (KLS)

About KEC

The Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) is an interactive platform at Kiel University that aims to better coordinate evolutionary researchers in Kiel and surroundings. Furthermore, under the key term of "Translational Evolutionary Research", specific bridges should be built between fundamental research and practical applications. Alongside the promotion of science, the focus of the Kiel Evolution Center also expressly includes teaching and public relations work. In addition to CAU, there are researchers involved from the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (MPI-EB) and the Research Center Borstel (FZB), Leibniz Center for Medical and Life Sciences.