Research Fellows Directory
Dr Tobias Uller
University of Oxford
We all know that the environment has profound effects on the way that animals grow, reproduce, and age. Yet, during most of the 20th century – known as the century of the gene – biologists chose to pay relatively little attention to this fact, preferring to focus on the genetic underpinnings of development and evolution. This has begun to change and many disciplines are starting to consider how the mechanisms of development can play an active role in evolution. Naturally, a shift in focus does not come without challenges and disputes. At the heart of the current debates lie epigenetic mechanisms – the molecular mechanisms that allow changes in gene expression without changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms can contribute to evolution in several ways; for example, by biasing the expression of variation – the raw material for selection – in particular directions; by constituting an alternative, more flexible, system of inheritance; or by allowing the build-up of ‘hidden’ genetic variation that may selectively be released in novel environments, thereby allowing organisms to quickly adapt genetically when they need it the most.
My research tackles these problems from both theoretical and empirical perspectives. Theoretical models can be used to predict when and where epigenetic inheritance will evolve and its consequences for adaptation to novel environments. Empirically, I make use of a long-term study of a natural population of individually marked great tits that are being followed from hatching to death. This allows me to test if epigenetic variants consistently are associated with variation in growth, reproduction, and ageing in the wild, to what extent they contribute to long-lasting consequences of conditions experienced early in life, and what the consequences of this are for populations in the short and longer term.
Interests and expertise (Subject groups)