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Department of Zoology


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