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"Evolution is part of all that surrounds us"

Florian Henkies, 27, is one of 15 doctoral researchers in the new Research Training Group (RTG) TransEvo. unizeit spoke to him about the importance of evolutionary research in Kiel, the advantages of doctoral research in a research training group, and the special challenges in the coronavirus year.

Florian Henkies
© Christian Urban, Uni Kiel

Florian Henkies is doing research on strategies to prevent antibiotic resistance.

unizeit: How did you come into contact with the research training group?

Florian Henkies: In the RTG TransEvo, I am involved in the project led by Professor Hinrich Schulenburg, where the main focus is on how human pathogens react to antibiotics in an evolutionary context. I studied Nutritional Sciences during my Bachelor's degree in Kiel, followed by the Master's in Medical Life Sciences. The end of this overlapped very nicely with the TransEvo call for applications. I applied there, and was lucky enough to be accepted.

What is your project in the research training group for the next few years?

I am investigating how we can take advantage of evolutionary processes, for example in order to increase the efficacy of antibiotics or to prevent the development of resistance. My main focus is on negative hysteresis. This is a process in which a short pre-treatment with an antibiotic increases the efficacy of a subsequent antibiotic. The goal is to put this concept into clinical use.

Why is it important in the wider context to apply evolutionary principles to different fields, and not only to medicine?

For most people, evolution is a topic that occurred a long time ago, and can explain how the diversity of species developed on Earth. In general, however, evolution occurs every day all around us, and especially we as humans influence it. In addition to medicine, also in agriculture more and more fungi, bacteria and pests are becoming resistant to the pesticides used. Another impressive example is the influence of commercial fishing on fish populations. The rules on the minimum size of the fish caught have led to ever-smaller fish being "farmed". These are all problems that we investigate in the RTG.

Bacteria in a petri dish

The experiment shows how antibiotics inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Why is it worth to coming to Kiel if you are interested in evolutionary research?

I have been in Kiel for the past seven years now, and even in this short time there has been a lot of progress. Fundamentally, with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön we of course have a great institution here, which certainly speaks for Kiel and the surrounding area. Some of our projects are located there directly at the institute. Then there are lots of initiatives which have been started, such as the Kiel Evolution Center, the construction of the new CeTEB research building and two Master's degree programmes (MAMBE, MEDlife) related to evolution. You can see that evolutionary research receives very strong support in Kiel.

What is the difference between participation in an RTG programme and an individual doctoral thesis?

In an RTG programme, everything is a little bit more structured. Otherwise you might need four to six years for a doctoral thesis, and then it always depends very strongly on the supervision as to whether or not you actually finish. In the RTG, there is quality assurance in place to ensure that we finish in the stipulated period of around three years. We have a so-called Thesis Advisory Committee at least once a year, for which we compose an annual report and present it to the committees of experts. There is then also valuable feedback from professors and postdocs. A lot of institutions are involved in the RTG where you can gain insight from. In addition, there is also always a "taught" component in RTGs, in which modules are completed. On the one hand, these include valuable soft skills such as time management, but also courses which convey the foundations of TransEvo research.

What problems arose for the new doctoral researchers in the coronavirus year 2020?

I was extremely lucky that I had started before the coronavirus pandemic and had already worked for three months. So the reduction in the number of people permitted in the laboratory primarily meant that we had to split ourselves into shifts. From a purely scientific perspective, the coronavirus has not restricted me significantly. Since I live together with my partner, the social isolation is also not much of a problem. For some doctoral researchers, especially those who come from a non-EU country, the situation was really dramatic. The embassies were not open, they did not know if they would get a visa, and even if they could start here at all. The traditional places to meet new people, like sports clubs, are closed. This makes the start in a new country difficult, of course.

This interview was conducted by Christian Urban.

Applied evolutionary research

The Research Training Group 2501 Translational Evolutionary Research (RTG TransEvo) is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The goal is to explore and promote the relevance of evolutionary principles to current problems. Unintended consequences of human interventions often result from actions that affect natural selection, for example the use of antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs in medicine, the use of pesticides in agriculture or the disruption of the Earth’s ecosystems by humans. But evolutionary concepts are only rarely used to improve the understanding of these challenges and to develop new sustainable solutions. In the RTG TransEvo, which was launched in 2020 and currently has 15 doctoral researchers, this is exactly what happens: knowledge and concepts from fundamental research in the field of evolutionary biology are used to better understand and deal with current challenges in the future.