skip to primary navigationskip to content

Michaelmas term modules 2016-17


M1 Topics in vertebrate evolution

Module Organiser: Dr Jason Head

This course introduces the history and evolution of non-mammalian vertebrates, emphasising questions that are the subject of current debate and controversy. We integrate studies of fossil and living vertebrates to examine major events in evolution. These variously include the relationships of gnathostomes to jawless fishes; the interrelationships of gnathostomes and the evolution of their distinguishing features, such as jaws and teeth; the early evolution of tetrapods and the transition to land–dwelling; the origin and radiation of stem tetrapods and amphibians; the diversification of amniotes and the subsequent evolution of the diapsids into lepidosaurs and archosaurs, including dinosaurs and birds. Building on the evolutionary relationships of these groups, we draw implications for their biology in several areas. These include topics such as the origin and development of fins and limbs, the evolutionary radiation and biogeography of lizards and rhyncocephalians, the mechanics of locomotion and feeding among dinosaurs, and the origins of avian biology. Case examples are used to highlight analytical approaches to interpreting fossil data such as morphometrics, and to explore controversial aspects of vertebrate phylogeny.

An important component of the course is the demonstration practicals, which give "hands-on" experience of actual fossil material, including some type and figured specimens. Practical and theoretical approaches to systematics including computer-based methods are dealt with.


M2 Conservation science

Module Organiser: Prof Bill Sutherland

(Inter-departmental Course, with Plant Sciences)

This interdepartmental course, taught by the Departments of Zoology and Plant Sciences, aims to provide an understanding of why wild nature is currently in decline, why this matters, and how biology coupled with other disciplines can be harnessed to identify potential solutions.

The course begins by explaining the distribution and importance of biodiversity, and the evidence that it is currently being lost. It then examines in detail the immediate threats to wild populations and their habitats, and the underlying drivers of those threats. The final section of lectures explores potential solutions, combining socio-economic as well as biological insights to take a constructively critical look at approaches ranging from sustainable harvesting and ecosystem restoration to agri-environment schemes and the marketing of ecosystem services.

Core lectures are supplemented by case studies given by outside experts on policy and conservation practice. There is also a field trip, a careers session, and two class debates.


M3 Human evolutionary ecology

Module Organiser:

This course will take an evolutionary and ecological approach to understand how our own species interacts with its environment. Anatomically Modern Humans are arguably the most studied species on the planet, and provide a fascinating study system for which multiple lines of evidence (archaeology, physiology, genetics, and behaviour) can be blended to ask questions about its past and present. The current global distribution of our species is the result of a rapid expansion that started ~100k years ago: we will look at how our speceis evolved in its ancestral African homeland, the challenges it faced when colonising new environments and how it responded to them, and how it interacted with other species (other hominins as well as other species). In these contexts, we will also pay attention to the possible role of culture and its effect on the structure of human societies.

The final four lectures explore the relationship between population dynamics and tradeoffs in life history traits. Rufus Johnstone introduces basic ideas of co-evolutionary ecology and in particular the application of game theory to explore evolutionary dynamics.


M4 Neuroethology: The neural basis of adaptive behaviour

Module Organiser: Dr Berthold Hedwig

These lectures place a strong emphasis on understanding the neural mechanisms underlying behaviour. Within this module we explore how nervous systems are organised, how animals gather and process information about the environment, and how they generate the motor activity underlying their behaviour.

 The first lectures will give an introduction into the organisation and adaptations of brains and will show how an animal's capabilities are linked to ecology and lifestyle. We then consider neural circuits and the control of motor patterns, animals performing at extremes allow to analyse specific neuronal adaptations.  We demonstrate how auditory and visual processing is adapted to the lifestyle in insects and other species. Larval and adult Drosophila will be discussed with an emphasis on genetic techniques to study their nervous system and behaviour. Finally, we will demonstrate the basis of plasticity in neural networks und behaviour at a circuit and cellular level.


M5 Evolution and behaviour: Genes and individuals

Module Organiser:

The classical way to study animal behaviour separates questions concerned with function (what is the adaptive value of the behaviour? what is its evolutionary history?) from those focused on causation (how is the behaviour controlled? how does it develop during a lifetime?). The aim of this course to show how recent research is sweeping aside these traditional distinctions in two different ways, yielding new insights into the way that evolution works. Specifically:

1)    Animal behaviour, and the mechanisms by which it develops, can contribute to evolutionary change: by changing ecological conditions; by imposing selection on other parts of the phenotype and other individuals; by influencing patterns of inherited variation; and by facilitating reproductive isolation.

2)    At the same time, the mechanisms controlling behaviour and its development are themselves subject to natural selection and are adaptations for the ecological conditions in which an animal lives. This means that we can predict the particular mechanisms involved in behavioural development, as well as an animal’s immune function and its specific cognitive and sensory capacity, from aspects of its ecology.

The first half of the course focuses on the genetic foundations of behaviour and the consequences for evolutionary processes such as adaptation and speciation. In the second half of the course, the emphasis is on the adaptive value of cognitive, sensory and immune function and how they contribute to individual variation.


M6 Cell assembly and interactions

Module Organiser:

(Inter-departmental Course, with PDN)

Cells are highly organised and dynamic structures. In this module we will explore how the architecture of the cell is constructed and how cells interact with each other and their environment in order to fulfil their myriad roles in animals. 

We will begin with a discussion of the interplay between subcellular structures and cellular function including the key role of the cytoskeleton.  Continuing this theme we focus on the construction, and dynamics of transfer between, membrane compartments in the cell.  We also investigate how nuclear organisation and architecture of the genome reflects and regulates gene function.  Cells operate in a complex environment and we study this from several viewpoints.  We look at the physics of the interactions of cells with their surroundings.   We explore how cells integrate and respond to the diverse signals that arrive at their surface, discussing how the spatial organisation of intracellular signals has a profound influence on the nature of signalling. We investigate how the interplay between plasma membrane receptors, signalling pathways and the cytoskeleton contributes to cell polarity and mediation of adhesion between cells to form higher order multicellular assemblies. To understand and advance cell biology we need to find new ways of thinking and so we will also look at the impact of modelling on cell biology. 

In addition to lectures there are six journal club sessions in which there will be an interactive discussion of topical references.


M7 From genome to proteome

Module Organiser: Dr Torsten Krude

(Inter-departmental Course, with Biochemistry)

This course aims to introduce and discuss the regulation of gene expression using a wide range of examples and different model organisms, and to introduce the range of methodology that is used in such studies. This course aims to take you from the level of familiarity with textbooks and reviews up to the level of reading, understanding and critically evaluating original research papers.

Control of gene expression is a topic that addresses the flow of information from the genome to the proteome. It includes the steps of gene transcription (i.e. mRNA synthesis), splicing, mRNA localization within the cell, and protein synthesis (i.e. mRNA translation). Understanding gene expression is important for understanding the fundamental functions of cells, how cells proliferate, how they respond to environmental stimuli, how they change their function during differentiation and how new complex patterns and structures emerge during development. An understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate gene expression is therefore an essential topic of contemporary cell and developmental biology. This module introduces and discusses the factors which catalyse and regulate transcription, RNA localization and translation. It also addresses newly emerging concepts, which provide additional levels of regulation and complexity. For instance, genome projects have focussed more and more attention on patterns of gene expression in different cells, different tissues and different organisms. The tool of RNA interference has been developed to knock-out the expression of any specific gene in living cells to study the function of that particular gene in vivo. Small non-coding RNAs have been identified as regulators for fine-tuning gene expression in many systems. Finally, the coordination of gene expression between the cell nucleus and organelles containing their own DNA will be discussed.


M8 Development: patterning the embryo

Module Organiser: Dr Isa Palacios

(Inter-departmental Course, with PDN)

This course is the first of two complementary modules (with L6), which can also be taken on their own. Our aim is to explore a fascinating biological question: how does a single cell, the fertilized egg, have all the information to make an animal? Our current knowledge of the underlying molecular mechanisms that create cell diversity and pattern in the early embryo will be examined in depth. We will discuss how the experimental advantages of different model organisms have aided the discovery of the principles of development, and the insights provided by comparing the developmental strategies of vertebrates and invertebrates. In this first module we will address key aspects of early development, including how development is regulated, how the patterning of spatial information is established and how morphogenetic mechanisms shape the embryo. At each stage we will discuss the cellular mechanisms required and the molecular networks that drive them. By comparing the development of different animals we aim to come to an understanding of conserved strategies of animal development.

These themes will be covered from the establishment of polarity in the egg, and its elaboration after fertilisation, to a consideration of how these events set the body axes. We will then see how axial patterning direct the morphogenetic movements of gastrulation and the grouping of cells into segments with differing identities.

This course will consist of three lectures per week with six one hour journal club sessions, in which we will aim for interactive sessions discussing key references.

Our aim is to provide a course that is accessible to anyone doing Part II Zoology and we hope that you will consider doing this course whatever your previous background.