Princeton professor speaks in Kiel on pathogen evolution and population immunity

US evolutionary biologist Jessica Metcalf talks as a keynote speaker at the "Evolution by the Sea" conference of the Kiel evolutionary biology research initiatives

Since Monday, 4 September, the annual conference "Evolution by the Sea" of Kiel evolutionary researchers is taking place for the third time at Kiel University. The Leibniz ScienceCampus Evolutionary Medicine of the Lung (EvoLUNG) and the DFG Research Training Group (RTG) Translational Evolutionary Research (TransEvo) are jointly hosting the event. Around 80 scientists from the evolutionary research networks at Kiel University and its partner institutions will discuss current developments in evolutionary research with international experts.

The event is once again focused on the concept of translational evolutionary research, which describes the transfer of fundamental findings from evolutionary biology to various fields of application such as medicine, nature conservation or agriculture. In 20 talks and various exchange formats, participants will present their current research work, including for example, the importance of the co-evolution of pathogens and hosts for population immunity, evolutionary strategies to combat antibiotic resistance, or novel therapeutic approaches to treat respiratory diseases.

One of the plenary speakers is Professor Jessica Metcalf from Princeton University in the US. The evolutionary biologist researches the connections between pathogen evolution and human immunity to various pathogens at the population level. Her research is particularly relevant to human health in the context of global change, which may increase the spread of harmful pathogens. Metcalf is working with her team to explore the fundamental drivers of immunity during the co-evolution of humans with a variety of pathogens and to derive strategies for improving public health.

"Jessica Metcalf's work is particularly inspiring for evolutionary researchers in Kiel," emphasises Kiel evolutionary biologist Professor Hinrich Schulenburg, spokesperson for the RTG TransEvo and co-organiser of the conference. "Better insights into the connections between pathogen evolution and population immunity is of fundamental importance in times of drastic environmental change. Metcalf is doing amazing pioneering work in this field," Schulenburg continued. Her research is of great interest especially for the young researchers in Kiel who combine medical and evolutionary topics in their work. In Kiel, Metcalf will talk on the topic of "Co-evolved Immunity and a Changing Planet" and she will present her latest research results in this field.

The principle of Evolutionary Rescue

Kiel evolutionary research focuses in particular on the transferability of evolutionary principles to various fields of application. As such, the various research consortia at Kiel University and its partner institutions explore promising strategies for solving the challenges of the Anthropocene. Our current times are generally characterised by dramatic, human-induced environmental changes caused, for example, by intensive agriculture, industrialisation, comprehensive medical treatments and climate change. The human-induced changes create strong selection pressure on natural systems, to which living organisms can respond with the process known as Evolutionary Rescue: They can escape extinction if they are able to adapt through fast evolutionary change.

Evolutionary Rescue is a challenge for slowly evolving organisms such as larger animals and especially humans. In contrast, short-lived species with large populations, as is the case with microorganisms, can usually respond quickly to rapid changes in environmental conditions. The ability or inability to adapt quickly 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 it can threaten human health through the rapid evolution of resistance to drugs. "Our research aims to better understand these human-influenced selection processes. This knowledge will assist us in meeting many of the current challenges with an evolutionary origin, such as the antibiotic crisis, the conservation of natural resources and the sustainability of food production," emphasises Professor Tal Dagan, board member of the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC), the network of evolutionary biology research initiatives in Kiel and the surrounding area.

Promotion of young researchers and career development in evolutionary research

The organising team of the "Evolution by the Sea" conference is paying particular attention to young researchers again this year. This is expressed, for example, in a programme item that explicitly revolves around career opportunities for evolutionary researchers in the private sector. Representatives from the biotech industry or journalism have been invited to report on career prospects outside academia. One example is provided by guest speaker Sylvia Varland, who represents the Munich-based company smartbax GmbH, which is working on the commercial development of antibiotics with novel modes of action. This example emphasizes the importance of transfer, which can also be enhanced by exchange of personnel between academia and industry.

In addition, the "Evolution by the Sea" annual conference is an occasion to reward excellence among the young scientists from the participating research consortia. Two Isabelle Olivieri Medals, each endowed with 5000 euros, will be awarded for outstanding publications in the field of translational evolutionary research. The medals go to Hanna Schenk and Kwi Han for their work on the significance of ecological and evolutionary changes due to overfishing, as well as on the special value of diversity in the microbiome, respectively. In addition, the TransEvo Innovation Prize is awarded as a start-up fund for interdisciplinary and innovative post-doctoral projects in the field of translational evolutionary research, after completion of the doctoral thesis. Florian Buchholz and Freya Pappert receive the award, which comes with 45,000 euros each, to tackle research projects in the field of antibiotic resistance evolution and changes in gender roles in the animal kingdom, respectively.

The promotion of young researchers in Kiel's evolutionary research community is at the heart of the activities of KEC, the Kiel Evolution Center, which has been actively working for several years on interconnecting evolutionary science activities and research initiatives in the Kiel region. The university and its partner institutions, including the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Research Centre Borstel, have since succeeded in acquiring several large research consortia such as EvoLUNG or TransEvo. "We will definitely continue this successful course and bring together top interdisciplinary research on evolution at Kiel University and in the Kiel region," says KEC spokesperson Schulenburg, commenting on the future prospects for evolutionary research within the framework of Kiel University’s priority research area Kiel Life Science (KLS).

Scientific contact:

Prof. Hinrich Schulenburg
Spokesperson Research Training Group (RTG) „Translationale Evolutionsforschung“ (TransEvo), Kiel University:
+49 (0) 431-880-4141


Press contact:

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


About the GRK 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.


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).

Group photo at Seeburg
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Around 80 researchers discuss current developments in evolutionary research at the "Evolution by the Sea" meeting at Kiel University.

Portrait of Metcalf and Schulenburg
© Prof. Hinrich Schulenburg

Plenary speaker Professor Jessica Metcalf from Princeton, here with Professor Hinrich Schulenburg, researches the connections between pathogen evolution and human immunity.

Scientific talk
© Dr Sabrina Köhler, Kiel University

The event revolves around translational evolutionary research, which aims at the transfer of fundamental findings from evolutionary biology to various fields of application.

Group photo awardees
© Dr Sabrina Köhler, Kiel University

Honours for young researchers in translational evolutionary research: Hanna Schenk (2nd from left) and Kwi Han (left) receive the Isabelle Olivieri Medal, Florian Buchholz and Freya Pappert (2nd from right) are awarded the TransEvo Innovation Prize.

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