Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards
Organisation: University of Exeter
Dates: Apr 2013-Mar 2018
Summary: It is commonly assumed that evolution occurs very slowly, but in fact there are many well-known examples of evolution occurring in our life times. For example, because of overfishing, cod have evolved to start reproducing at a much younger age, ensuring they can leave some offspring before they are caught in nets. This change in body size of cod in turn affects the prey they eat and the predators that feed on them, with cascading effects throughout the whole ecosystem. As a result, we can’t hope to understand ecosystems in the absence of evolution, and vice versa.
While the feedback between community structure and microevolution is relevant to all communities, it is likely to be of particular importance to the “unseen” communities: that is, the communities of microorganisms (microbes) that are in and all around us. Short generation times (as little as 20 minutes) and massive population sizes (up to a 100 million in a drop of water) mean that microbes evolve extremely rapidly, particularly in light of the pressures imposed on microbes by humans, such as antibiotics. I am carrying out experiments in natural microbial communities (specifically, soil) to understand the feedback between evolution and community structure.
Microbial evolution in natural populations is of huge applied significance. Rapid microbial evolution is responsible for the continual failure of clinical treatments, as a result of drug resistance, and is also likely to play a key role in the effectiveness of a range of industrial applications of microbes, such as the production of biofuels (methane and ethanol), biomining (microbes are used to extract gold from ore) and food production. More generally, ecosystem services, such as the cycling of carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen, are ultimately driven by microbial communities.