News and Information
Size Matters - The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2010
Look out for two members of the Department in this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Karin Moll from the Insect Biomechanics Group and Tim Cockerill from the Insect Ecology Group both gave demonstrations in the first lecture, entitled 'Why Elephants Can't Dance'.
Karin gave a demonstration of the load-carrying prowess of leaf-cutting ants, using a live colony to illustrate the point. Tim gave a demonstration of the strength and jumping ability of fleas, recreating a stunt from the fairground flea circus. Despite the freezing weather, the animals survived the trip to London, and performed to demand on the day, alongside Britain's Strongest Man, stars of Strictly Come Dancing, and a Performing Poodle.
The lectures, entitled Size Matters, are this year given by engineer and materials scientist Mark Miodownik, and can be seen on BBC4 on the 28th, 29th and 30th of December at 8pm.
From mice to giraffes, mammals are remarkable in that all but a handful of their 5000 species have exactly seven vertebrae in the neck. Among the few that deviate from this number are three-toed sloths, which may have up to ten ribless vertebrae in the neck. By examining the development of bones in the vertebral column, limbs, and ribcage, scientists have discovered how sloths evolved their unique neck skeleton.
Traditionally, vertebrae above the shoulders that lack ribs are known as cervical or neck vertebrae. Animals such as birds and lizards show great variety in the number of vertebrae in their neck. For example, a swan may have twice as many as a songbird. Mammals, on the other hand, are much more conservative. A giraffe has the same number of neck vertebrae as a human, mouse, elephant, or armadillo; all have exactly seven. Sloths are an exception, with up to 10 vertebrae in their neck. In order to discover if patterns of bone formation in these strange animals give any clues to their divergent vertebral anatomy, Dr Rob Asher and Dr Lionel Hautier from the department have investigated the development of the skeleton in mammals, focusing on the vertebral column in sloths.
Ribcage vertebrae masquerading as neck vertebrae
They found that in all mammals except for sloths, bone formation always took place earlier in the body of first few vertebrae of the ribcage than in the neck. The only exception was among three-toed sloths, which show early bone-formation in the bodies of their distal, ribless neck vertebrae, before those of the ribcage. However, by observing the position of bone-formation within the vertebral column, the investigators made a startling discovery: all mammals, including sloths, show early development of the body of the eighth vertebra down from the head, whether or not it is part of the neck. In other words, the bottom neck vertebrae of sloths show a similar sequence of development as the top ribcage vertebrae of other mammals, both of which start at eight vertebrae down from the head. This shows that the bottom "neck" vertebrae of sloths are developmentally the same as ribcage vertebrae of other mammals, but lack ribs.
These new results support the interpretation that the limb girdles and at least part of the ribcage derive from different embryonic tissues than the vertebrae, and that during the course of evolution, they have moved in concert with each other relative to the vertebral column. In three-toed sloths, the position of the shoulders, pelvis, and ribcage are linked with one another, and compared to their common ancestor shared with other mammals, have shifted down the vertebral column to make the neck longer.
1 October 2010 sees major changes in the academic leadership of the Department.
Professor Malcolm Burrows, Head of Department 1996 – 2010, retires, but will be remaining in the Department as an active researcher in neurobiology. Malcolm's retirement event on 13 September featured short presentations by past and present colleagues and was attended by special guest lecturer Gilles Laurent and by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alison Richard, who spoke warmly of Malcolm's leadership of the Department and unveiled a new portrait of Malcolm by Tom Wood (the painting is now hanging in the library). The event was described in the following blog written by John Naughton: http://memex.naughtons.org/archives/2010/09/13/11791
Professor Michael Akam succeeds Malcolm Burrows as Head of Department and Professor of Zoology. Michael is a celebrated developmental geneticist with a particular interest in the generation of morphological diversity. He was elected FRS in 2000 and was awarded the Linnean Society medal for Zoology in 2009. He joined the Department in 1997 from the Wellcome/CRC Institute, to take up the Directorship of the Museum of Zoology. Under his leadership the Museum has innovated in many areas and, in particular, has greatly expanded the scale, scope and popularity of its public education and outreach activities. His research is described at: http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/zoostaff/akam.htm
We also welcome to the Department Professor Paul Brakefield, who takes over as Director of the Museum. Paul joins us from his concurrent appointments in Leiden and Sheffield. He writes: "I am fascinated by the spectacular diversity of insects and especially the wing patterns of butterflies. Evolution by natural selection is at the heart of biodiversity and has, therefore, always been my focus. We know a lot about genetic variation within natural populations and we have many robust examples of how natural selection influences variation in morphology. We know much less about precisely how the genes regulate developmental pathways to yield the variation in morphology which is relevant for evolution to occur by natural selection." In addition to his work in the Museum, he will be joining Chris Jiggins in the new Evolutionary Genetics Lab (shared with Genetics) at Madingley. Paul was elected FRS in 2010.
This photograph. taken by Tim Cockerill a PhD student in the Department's Insect Ecology Group, was a runner-up in the British Ecological Society Photographic Competition 2010.
The photograph was entered in the Ecology and Society category with the following caption: "In a plantation of oil-palm in Sabah, Borneo, the stump of a once-majestic rainforest tree provides a haunting reminder of how the landscape has changed in the name of human consumption.".
Other winners from the competition can be seen on the British Ecological Society's website
Fishermen barely eking out a profit because of overfishing of their target stock, shrimp, are now surviving by selling their bycatch (the low-value fish also caught in the large, indiscriminate nets). Although good for the fishermen, scientists warn that the prolonged trawl fishing along certain areas will lead to an 'ecological catastrophe' and the 'permanent loss of livelihoods for fishers' as well as other individuals who work in the industry.
A paper published in the current issue of the journal Conservation Letters by researchers from the University of Cambridge shows that the drivers for the use of this once discarded resource are twofold: declining shrimp stocks and profits, and the development of alternative markets, which include the rapidly growing poultry-feed industry.
Trawl fishing is a technique employed the world over in which a fishing vessel drags a gaping net along the ocean floor. Unfortunately, though trawlers target a limited number of species such as shrimp and some fish, trawl nets capture anything in their path and seriously damage the seafloor as well. It's been estimated that trawlers in the tropics capture an average of 10 kilos of bycatch for every kilo of shrimp.
When trawl fishing first began in South and Southeast Asia, trawlers discarded large quantities of bycatch. The lead author of the study, Aaron Savio Lobo a PhD student in the Department, says this is now changing, "Recently there has been a shift in this trend and an increase in the use of the previously discarded bycatch."
Several species of bycatch which were traditionally discarded are now being sold for local consumption. Additionally, there has been increased demand for 'trash fish' to feed the region's rapidly growing poultry industry, a consequence of the country's rising affluence.
The Cambridge team's research demonstrates that even though the profits obtained from the original target catch have fallen almost to nothing, the development of new markets for bycatch now means that trawlers can continue fishing and still remain profitable.
Looking to the policy implications of the study, Lobo says: "If appropriate measures are not taken immediately to limit overfishing then the outcomes could be catastrophic for the ecosystem and result in the permanent loss of livelihoods for the fishers in the region."
Members of the Team from the Insect Ecology Group (Museum of Zoology), after taking part in the Chariots of Fire Charity Race on September 19th.
Just as afternoon tea is traditional in England but not in France, different groups of meerkats have different ways of doing things, Cambridge zoologists have found. After studying meerkats in the Kalahari for the past 10 years, Dr Alex Thornton and colleagues from the Department found that some groups of meerkats always got up later out of their sleeping burrows than their neighbours.
These differences appear to have been maintained as local traditions, with patterns of behaviour in different groups being spread by learning from others. Studying social traditions among animals in the wild is difficult because it is hard to prove that differences in behaviour are due to the social spread of information rather than genetics or environmental factors. This is the first time such traditional patterns of daily activity have been observed in animals outside the laboratory, and the study is published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
According to lead author Dr Thornton: "Studies of animal traditions are essential for understanding the biological origins of human culture." "Because most previous studies examined groups of animals separated by large distances it has been extremely difficult to work out whether behavioural differences between groups really are traditions, or whether they might be better explained by genetic differences or differences in the local ecology." Dr Thornton's study site in the Kalahari Desert is shared by fifteen meerkat groups with overlapping territories, and group differences in getting-up time could not be explained by differences in ecological conditions. And as male meerkats always breed outside the group that they were born into, genes get shuffled between groups, so genetic factors are unlikely to account for group differences.
"We found that new immigrants adopted the behaviour of their new groups and that differences between groups were maintained despite groups changing in size and structure as old members died and new ones were born," says Dr Thornton. "So it seems that, like afternoon tea or an apéritif before dinner, meerkat getting-up times are local traditions passed down through the generations."
Multi-generational persistence of traditions in neighbouring meerkat groups in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Killer whales and the mystery of human menopause
The evolutionary mystery of menopause is a step closer to being solved thanks to research on killer whales. A study by Cambridge and Exeter universities has found a link between killer whales, pilot whales and humans - the only three known species where females stop breeding relatively early in their lifespan.
Despite very different social structures between the three species, the research - by Dr Rufus Johnstone of the Department and Dr Michael Cant of Exeter - shows that in each case females become increasingly genetically related to those they live with as they get older. Because of this, there is a motivation for older females to do what is best for the survival of those around them. This creates a 'grandmother' role, where the success rate of breeding in the group can be helped by older females sharing parenting knowledge and stopping breeding to allow younger females easier access to resources.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first to provide a plausible explanation as to why these species in particular are the only ones in which females finish reproduction while they still have decades left to live.
Dr Cant, from the University of Exeter's School of Biosciences, said: "It's always been puzzling why only humans and toothed whales have evolved menopause, while females in all other long-lived species continue breeding until late in life. "Although the social behaviours of the three menopausal species are very different, there is a common link: their social systems mean females become more related to those around them as they get older. This predisposes females of our species, and those of killer whales and pilot whales, to the evolution of menopause and late-life helping".
Humans are thought to have evolved in groups in which young females left their group to find a mate. This would have meant they started their reproductive lives in families to whom they were genetically unrelated. Later in life, however, as their offspring start to breed, they become more genetically related to those around them and have the option to cease reproduction to help raise their 'grand-offspring'. However, this argument doesn't seem to explain menopause in killer whales or pilot whales, in which both sexes remain in their natal family groups throughout their life, but occasionally come together with other groups to mate.
The new research, however, shows this very different social system has the same overall effect on patterns of genetic similarity within groups: females become more closely related to infants in the group as they get older. By contrast with humans and menopausal whales, in other long-lived mammals it is typically males who leave the group to breed, and females who stay with their mother. According to the research, in this case older females will be selected to continue breeding rather than give up reproduction to help raise grandchildren.
Dr Johnstone said: "For the first time we can see a common link between menopausal species that provides a valid explanation as to why this trait might have evolved. This isn't likely to be the only factor relevant to the evolution of 'grandmothering' and menopause, but it does give us an idea as to why it is restricted to so few species in the animal kingdom."
Science Meets Culture
Dr Alex Thornton will be speaking at a prestigious joint meeting of the Royal Society and the British Academy entitled "Culture Evolves" on the 28th of June at the Southbank Centre in London. The meeting runs from the 28th to the 30th of June and is open to the public. The meeting forms part of the celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.
Details are at: http://royalsociety.org/Culture-evolves/
In association with this joint meeting is a 'Science of culture' exhibition which features in the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, a 10-day extravaganza showcasing the UK's cutting-edge science in London's Southbank Centre from 25th June.
Scientists from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh, Stirling and Cambridge will show how they study the evolution of culture in humans and in animals, from meerkats to apes. The researchers expect to attract the interest of all age levels by offering computer games played on ipads, videos and hands-on examples of their experiments. Visitors will be able to step into the shoes of a chimpanzee learning about tool use from other apes or play their part in the building of ever taller spaghetti towers.
Some parts of the ‘Culture Evolves’ exhibit are about answering the question, ‘where did our human cultural nature come from?’ From chimpanzees to meerkats to fish, the researchers will present some of their most fascinating discoveries showing that the roots of culture can be traced in animal traditions.
More details, downloadable images, videos, background information, related links and blogs are available via http://www.cultureevolves.org
Members of the Evolutionary Ecology group have found cracks in the long-standing theory that the number of eggs animals have – and the size of those eggs – is related to how much parental care they invest in their offspring.
Humans, like other mammals, have relatively few offspring into which they invest an immense amount of effort. In cold-blooded animals such as fish and amphibians, however, eggs vary greatly in size and number. Evidence suggests that parental care and producing larger eggs go hand-in-hand. But a new analysis of reproductive strategies in insects by Dr James Gilbert and Dr Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge shows that this relationship does not hold in the insect world. According to Dr Gilbert: "Our results are wholly unexpected. We found that, regardless of how much effort insect species invest in parental care, the relative size of their eggs did not change. This means we may have to reassess our ideas about how caring for offspring affects their size."
When they looked at relationships between egg numbers and parental care in insects, they found even more surprising results. "In insects that do not care for their eggs, we found that the larger the insect, the more eggs they have. What is really surprising is that in insects that feed their offspring, this relationship is reversed: the bigger the insect, the fewer eggs they have."
Dung beetles are a case in point. Even though they are among the largest beetles in the world, some lay only three or four eggs during their lives - fewer eggs than any other insect - putting an immense amount of effort into each offspring. "These insects' reproductive strategy is more like mammals and birds," says Dr Gilbert. Burying beetles also feed offspring - but despite being smaller, they have many more offspring than dung beetles. Why this should be the case could, Dr Gilbert believes, simply be due to how much food large offspring need. He explains: "If you feed your offspring, you are personally responsible for meeting the energy requirements of the whole brood. If you belong to a bigger species, both you and all your offspring are bigger, so although your size lets you bring more food to your offspring, the energy requirements of each and every offspring have also increased." "That means that the requirements of the whole brood are going to go through the roof, because you have to multiply that increase in demand by a factor of however many young you have. The bigger the species you belong to, the fewer offspring you can physically feed."
The results are published online this week in The American Naturalist. The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Balfour-Browne Fund, the Chibnall Fund and the Cambridge Philosophical Society.
Tropical fish alter their behaviour with an eye to the future, researchers in the department have found. This is the first time such behaviour has been seen in any animals except humans. Economists use the term "shadow of the future" to describe how humans change the way they behave towards another person depending on the likelihood that the two will meet again in the future.If a future meeting is likely, people tend to behave more cooperatively, while if they are unlikely to meet again they are more likely to cheat each other.
Jenny Oates and colleagues from the University of Cambridge and University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland studied tropical cleaner fish (Labroides bicolor) in their natural environment among the coral reefs of the South Pacific and found that these fish - like humans - respond to the "shadow of the future". As their name suggests, cleaner fish feed by removing parasites from the skin, mouths and gills of many other fish (known as client species), including sharks and puffer fish. However, they also sometimes feed by taking a sneaky bite of mucous from the clients' skin. While removing parasites is cooperative behaviour, benefiting both species, eating mucous is potentially harmful to the client fish because the mucous is part of its immune system.
Oates, a PhD student, found that the cleaner fish behave differently in different areas of their home range. They behave more cooperatively - feeding off clients' parasites - in the parts of their home range where they spend most time and are therefore more likely to meet the same client fish again. By contrast, they cheat - eating clients' mucous more often - in the parts of their home range that they visit less often, and where they are less likely to re-encounter the client fish they cheated.
According to Oates: "We can spot when a cleaner fish eats parasites from a client and when it takes a sneaky bite of their mucous because eating mucous makes the client fish jump. "The results suggest that, like humans, cleaner fish are able to take account of the future rather than just the immediate consequences of their actions."
The research was funded by the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society and the Swiss Science Foundation.
Recently a host of new species have been discovered from Mt. Mabu in northern Mozambique as part of a RBGKew Darwin Initiative award entitled Monitoring and Managing Biodiversity Loss on South-East Africa's Montane Ecosystems’. The Darwin Initiative award, coordinated by Dr. Julian Bayliss, focused on the high altitude mountains (>1500m) of northern Mozambique in an assessment of biological similarity between these mountains and Mt. Mulanje in southern Malawi (southern Africa’s second highest mountain), which lies on the border between these two countries. The majority of these mountain sites had not been visited by biologists.
Although the project was botanically focused elements of the Zoology from these mountain sites were studied by J. Bayliss; notably the Bats, Reptiles and Butterflies. This resulted in the discovery of 8 new species of butterfly, 4 new species of chameleon, 3 new species of snake, 4 new species of fresh water crab, and 1 new species of bat. However the greatest discovery from Mt. Mabu was an area of mid-altitude rainforest that has turned out to be the largest continuous block in southern Africa. In recognition of these discoveries one of the new species of chameleon from Mt. Mabu will be named after J. Bayliss.
For an overview of the project see:
PhD student Tim Cockerill recounts his adventures in the northern Borneo rainforest on the Planet Earth podcast.
Desert locusts are infamous for their swarming behaviour when they migrate en masse and consume everything in their path, but usually they occur in a form that actively avoids other locusts and live solitary existences. Which one of these lifestyles poses bigger challenges and requires more brain power? We found that swarming locusts develop 30% bigger brains compared to those who live in solitude, with selective enlargements in specific regions particularly associated with learning and complex processing. These bigger and profoundly different brains may help them to survive in the cut-throat environment of a locust swarm.
Further coverage can be found on the BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/science_and_environment/10158856.stm
The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Dr Tom Fayle has been awarded the Alfred Russel Wallace prize by the Royal Entomological Society for his studies of the ant community structure in a rain forest microcosm. "The award is for post-graduates who have been awarded a PhD, whose work is considered by their Head of Department to be outstanding. The research involved should be a major contribution to the Science of Entomology." A letter from the Society stated that "there was a very strong field this year, but his work and the manner of its presentation in his thesis received top ranking from the assessment panel and he is to be congratulated on a significant and substantial contribution to entomology"
This is the second prize Tom has won for his work, he won the ZSL's Thomas Henry Huxley Award and Marsh Prize highlighted on this page below.You can find out more about Tom on the Insect Ecology Group's website.
Using field experiments in Africa and a new computer model that gives them a bird’s eye view of the world, Dr Claire Spottiswoode and Dr Martin Stevens have discovered how a bird decides whether or not a cuckoo has laid an egg in its nest.
The finding offers unique insights into a 20 million-year-old evolutionary arms race. Only seven groups of birds in the world have evolved as brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds' nests, and ecologists have long been fascinated by this behaviour as an example of evolution in action.
Spottiswoode and Stevens worked on two tropical African species, the parasitic Cuckoo Finch and one of its hosts, the Tawny-flanked Prinia.
Until recently, most work on cuckoos has been done in temperate regions - Europe and North America - where species are relatively young in evolutionary terms. In the tropics, however, the Cuckoo Finch and Prinia could have been locked together in an evolutionary arms race for up to 20 million years.
As parasites have evolved ever better manipulation of their hosts, hosts have responded with ever more refined defences to evade parasitism. As a result, the Cuckoo Finch's mimicry of host eggs is extraordinary, as is the Prinias' ability to spot the parasite's eggs.
Spottiswoode and Stevens found that Prinias are amazingly good at rejecting foreign eggs, and that they use colour and several aspects of pattern to spot the parasite's eggs. Mysteriously, however, they do not seem to use the scribbles that uniquely occur only on the Prinias' eggs.
The specific traits used to distinguish foreign eggs were exactly those found to differ most between host eggs and real parasitic eggs. This suggests that natural selection is currently acting to make Cuckoo Finch eggs better mimics of their hosts', and also that Prinias use the most reliable information available in making rejection decisions.
The work was funded by the Royal Society and the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in South Africa, and is published in PNAS (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) today.
An image taken in the imaging facility in the department by Barry Denholm in Helen Skaer’s group has been nominated as a finalist in the Genetics Society of America Annual Drosophila image competition. The award is given in recognition of striking visual images that communicate important biological results relevant to Drosophila.
The image, originally published in Nature last year, illustrates the remarkable and unexpected similarities that exist between human and fruit fly kidneys.
Weavers H, Prieto-Sánchez S, Grawe F, Garcia-López A, Artero R, Wilsch-Bräuninger M, Ruiz-Gómez M, Skaer H, Denholm B. The insect nephrocyte is a podocyte-like cell with a filtration slit diaphragm. Nature 2009 15;457:322-6
Bird mothers communicate with their developing chicks before they even hatch by leaving them messages in the egg, new research by a team from the Department has found.
By changing conditions within the egg, canary mothers leave a message for their developing chicks about the life they will face after birth. In response, nestlings adjust the development of their begging behaviour. If they get a message that they will be reared by generous parents then they beg more vigorously for food after hatching. But chicks that are destined to be raised by meaner parents end up being much less demanding. By attending to messages in the egg, nestlings gain weight more rapidly because they match their demands to the parents’ supply of food, and can avoid either begging too little or wasting effort on unrewarded begging.
“This work changes our understanding of the pre-natal environment in birds,” says Dr Rebecca Kilner, who led the research. “We’ve known for about twenty years that maternal substances in the egg can influence the way in which chicks develop, but the common assumption is that they are a way in which mothers manipulate their offspring in a way that suits the mother more than the chick. What we’ve shown is the reverse: these substances are actually there to suit the chick. If we muck up the message in the egg experimentally, it is the chick that is penalized directly rather than the mother”.
The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.
Zoology graduates scooped a couple of prizes in the Graduate School of Life Sciences Poster and Images competion earlier this week keeping up our excellent record. (See last year's winners here.)
Ulrike Bauer (4th year PhD student with Walter Federle) was the winner in the 4th Year Phd/Post-Doc "whole Organisms" category for her poster entitled "Insect Aquaplaning: wetness-based activation of traps in Nepenthes pitcher plants." Poster can be seen here.
Matt Benton (1st year PhD student with Michael Akam) was runner-up in the image competition with his stunning image of a two day old cricket embryo that has been partially separated from its egg. Image can be seen here.
Warmest congratulations to both!
Congratulations to two students from the Department, who have recently received awards from the Zoological Society of London.
Tom Fayle won the 2009 Thomas Henry Huxley Award and Marsh Prize, which is awarded for original work in zoology, based on a completed PhD thesis. Haihan Tan won the 2009 Charles Darwin Award given for outstanding work in zoology, based on an undergraduate project.
Tom Fayle’s thesis “Ant community structure in a rainforest microcosm” used an elegant model system – the ant communities in a fern from the forest canopy – to investigate the important question of what maintains the high species diversity of insect communities in the tropics. The work was financed by a NERC studentship and was carried out at the Danum Valley Field Station in Sabah Malaysia, which is supported by the Royal Society. Tom was supervised by William Foster, in Cambridge, and Paul Eggleton at the Natural History Museum, London.
Haihan Tan’s project “Novel roles of nuclear receptors in cell fate decisions between neural stem cells and differentiated progeny in Drosophila” investigated the molecular mechanisms regulating the behaviour of stem cells in the central nervous system. The work was carried out at the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute, where Haihan was supervised by Tony Southall and Andrea Brand.
The Cambridge Zoology Department has a distinguished track-record for both these awards: the T H Huxley award has been given to a PhD student from the Department in six out of the last fifteen years, and the Charles Darwin award to a zoology undergraduate in two of the last four years.
An image of a tiny ant carrying 100 times its own body weight - while hanging upside down from a glass-like surface – has scooped first prize in the inaugural Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) science photo competition. This is the latest prize Thomas has won, including the Graduate School of Life Sciences award in March last year (see our news archive).
Further coverage is available here
Homo floresiensis, a pygmy-sized small-brained hominin popularly known as 'the Hobbit' was discovered five years ago, but controversy continues over whether the small brain is actually due to a pathological condition. How can its tiny brain size be explained? Researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Biology have tackled this question in the context of a comprehensive assessment of the evolution of brain and body size throughout the larger primate family.
Dr Nick Mundy and Stephen Montgomery, from the Department and colleagues from Durham University used previously published data from living and extinct species to reconstruct the pattern of brain and body mass evolution in primates. Nick Mundy explains: "A trend towards brain expansion is assumed to have occurred throughout primate evolution. This has been interpreted as an indication of selection for cognitive abilities due, for example, to 'arms races' in the ability to process social information."
"We found decreases in brain mass along several branches across the primate family tree. It is likely that reductions in brain size occurred to meet demands of the species' changing ecological needs meaning that sometimes individuals with smaller brains are favoured by natural selection."
Reconstructing the ups and downs of primate brain evolution: implications for adaptive hypotheses and Homo floresiensis BMC Biology Abstract, 27.01.10
Further Coverage: University of Cambridge News
Professor Sir Patrick Bateson was commissioned by the Dogs Trust and Kennel Club of Great Britain to produce a report on the breeding of pedigree dogs in this country. It was set up in the wake of a controversial 2008 BBC documentary about Crufts which said some dogs on show suffered from genetic diseases after years of inbreeding. The report was published last week and can be found here: http://breedinginquiry.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/final-dog-inquiry-120110.pdf
The Report concludes that dog-breeding raises a number of serious concerns about the welfare of dogs. Key recommendations include:
- The creation of an independent non-statutory Council to develop breeding strategies which address issues of inherited disease, extreme conformation and inbreeding.
- Changes in the law including requirements for the compulsory micro-chipping of all puppies and a duty of care on all breeders to have regard to the health and welfare of both the parents and the offspring of a mating.
- The need for a robust Accredited Breeder Scheme setting out requirements with regard to pre-mating health tests, purchasers being able to view a puppy with its mother, all puppies micro-chipped before sale etc.
- An urgent need for the creation of a computer-based system for the collection of anonymised diagnoses from veterinary surgeries in order to provide prevalence data for each breed.
- New regulations to replace the now out-dated breeding and sales of dogs legislation, and much better enforcement of good welfare on licensed dog breeding premises.
- A new publicity and education campaign, delivered by all key dog and welfare organisations working together, to encourage a major improvement in how the public go about buying dogs.
Further coverage, including an interview with Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, can be found on the BBC site - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8458223.stm
800th Anniversary Finale
Several labs from our Department have contributed visually appealing images to the Transforming tomorrow: 800th Anniversary Finale light show which takes place this weekend. The current image advertising the event on the University home page; the hindgut of a fruit fly, was taken by Paola Cognigni a PhD student in Irene Miguel Aliaga's research group and will be used in the light show.
Transforming tomorrow: 800th Anniversary Finale 16 - 18 January 2010
Leading researchers in the field of evolutionary and population genetics from the University of Cambridge and beyond met on 15th January for a special workshop.
The event was organised by the recently established Cambridge Evolutionary Genetics (CEG) network, which has been set up to foster links between researchers in this field based in different institutions across Cambridge.
Speakers at the event included Dr Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, as well as researchers working on evolutionary genetics from the Departments of Zoology, Genetics, Plant Sciences and Veterinary Medicine.
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is currently sequencing the gorilla genome and is heavily involved in the 1000 Genomes Project – an international effort to sequence genomes of over 2,000 diverse humans.
Dr Tyler-Smith, whose main research interest is human evolution, will be speaking to the workshop about sequencing possibilities, projects and results.
“DNA sequencing technology has allowed genetics to contribute to a subject that was previously the domain of palaeontologists and archaeologists,” he says.
“Humans’ big expansion out of Africa started around 50,000 years ago, but we still don’t know what turned a rare African species into a globally-dominant one. We hope genetics can now begin to provide insights into this, and allow us to trace the details of our spread and differentiation.”
“Our origins also have an impact on our current health and disease. Biologically, we have adapted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Africa over millions of years, but have only begun to adapt to a modern farming or urban lifestyle for a few thousand. Evolution is slow, and this mismatch underlies many of our health problems.”
This was the second meeting of the CEG, which was inspired by the success of Cambridge Neuroscience.
According to CEG organiser Dr Chris Jiggins of the Department of Zoology at the University: “Cambridge has a large group of researchers with similar interests in the fields of evolutionary and population genetics. We are hoping to bring people with common interests together, in the short-term just to get to know one another but hopefully in the longer term to foster new collaborations across Cambridge.”
“In establishing the CEG, we have been inspired by the success of Cambridge Neuroscience, which has been very successful in increasing the visibility of neuroscience research in Cambridge,” Jiggins says.
The CEG includes researchers in several University departments, such as Plant Science and Genetics, as well as the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the European Bioinformatics Institute and Anglia Ruskin University.
Cambridge has played a prominent role in the field since Darwin’s day. Cambridge academics Sir Ronald Fisher and JBS Haldane, together with Sewall Wright, produced ground-breaking work in population genetics in the early 1900s, and James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in the University’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1951.
Evolutionary approaches are now becoming widespread in the analysis of gene sequence data. Methods developed by evolutionary biologists are now used to search for human disease genes or to study the evolution of diseases.
Research conducted into insect genomics and evolution at Cambridge could help eradicate malaria, which is responsible for three million global deaths every year.
According to Dr Dean Baker of the University’s Department of Genetics: “ With the ongoing development of reliable methods for insect genetics, it has become increasingly likely that some pest populations, including mosquitoes, could in principle, be controlled with the use of genetic modification.”
And the University’s genetic work on flowering plants has far-reaching implications for global food production and biodiversity.
Dr Beverley Glover, a senior lecturer in the department of plant sciences, said it was important to understand why so many different animals, particularly insects, act as pollinators.
“We rely on animal pollination to produce many of our food crops, so understanding these relationships can help us to protect food production, and, perhaps, optimise it. Understanding how these relationships evolved should help us to plan strategies to maintain both plant and animal biodiversity, particularly when habitat or climate changes,” Dr Glover says.
Further details are available on the CEG website