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Institute for Life Sciences


Our evolution research examines fundamental scientific questions about how living systems, from microbes to organisms to ecosystems, change over time. To enhance our understanding of evolution we are using different data gathering techniques to examine how flexible and resilient different species are to short-term environmental changes and what the long-term impacts are.

Dr Anieke Brombacher and Dr Tom Ezard

Scientists across the University of Southampton have a successful history in evolutionary research.  For many years, our scientists have been examining evolution in terms of the different environmental factors that modify how genes evolve.  Researchers in areas such as biology, maths, computer science and ocean and earth science, are coming together to lead exciting developments in current evolutionary biology that challenge conventional assumptions.  These include the role of epigenetic inheritance, the role of phenotype plasticity and its potential to lead genetic evolution, and how natural selection changes its own ability to evolve over time by changing the parameters of developmental organisation that control the phenotype variability for selection to act on.  Understanding these complexities requires work that cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries to develop new theoretical frameworks.

Southampton’s varying subject areas and expertise mean we are well positioned to contribute to debates about evolution and explore evolutionary questions.

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Please see a selection of postgraduate courses related to this subject area below.

For the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Southampton, please visit our course pages

MRes Evolution: Galapagos to the 21st Century

This is a unique multidisciplinary programme that covers Palaeontology and global change, to engineering and the emergence of disease, modelling evolutionary theory to the Philosophy of Science.

Research PhD in Ocean & Earth Science

Doctoral study takes place in a stimulating research environment, with supervision by research-active members of staff with expertise in your area of interest.

MSc Oceanography

The MSc Oceanography degree is suited to those with a degree in biological sciences, chemistry, physics, maths, environmental science, physical geography or related disciplines.

MSc Marine Environment and Resources

This is a European degree programme with collaboration between 3 leading European institutions in this field, based in Bordeaux, Liege & Southampton.

PhD Programme in Biomedical Research

We are one of the UK's leading centres for biomedical research and offer a range of postgraduate opportunities in both basic and clinical science.

MSc in Statistics with Applications in Medicine

This one-year course provides sound Masters-level training in statistical methodology, with an emphasis on solving practical problems arising in the context of collecting and analysing medical data

PhD Biological Sciences

Biological Sciences offers superb learning and research facilities for postgraduate research students.

PhD Mathematical Sciences

Discover a lively and thriving community of postgraduate students engaged in research across a range of mathematical sciences areas.

Photo of Lorna Kearns
Science, by it’s nature, is interdisciplinary and therefore it only makes sense to conduct research in the same manner.
Lorna Kearns

Does Developmental Plasticity facilitate or inhibit speciation?

Using state-of-the-art approaches from multiple scientific disciplines our researchers are attempting to answer one of the most fundamental of all biological questions: how do differences among individuals make differences among species?

As we grow older, we change. We are flexible. This flexibility, or sometimes lack thereof, adjusts our traits, which has an impact on survival chances in new or changing environments and also provides the means to develop new combinations of traits. This flexibility as a means of innovation, could promote new species.

The timescales over which this hardwiring plays out complicates collection of data and we do not know whether future flexibility or a lack of it, is more likely to catalyse the emergence of new species. In this project, we are generating and examining novel data to show if a lifetime of flexibility, or a stubborn refusal to change, influences the emergence of new species. 

We are using the latest computer modelling and imaging techniques, as well as developing new software, to collate records of the journeys of Planktonic foraminifera through life and the environment it experienced. Our computer programmes provide a faster, more repeatable and less biased way of identifying and analysing data. Our aim is to investigate for the first time, if certain parts of an individual's journey through life are more influential than others in determining the eventual evolutionary destinations of its species.

Contact: Dr Tom Ezard

Putting the extended evolutionary synthesis to the test

Our researchers are joining peers around the globe in an international project that is expanding and updating our understanding of evolutionary biology.

The collaboration, which involves experts from eight institutions in the United States, Great Britain and Sweden, aims to present new perspectives on the relationships between genes, organism, and environment. It centres on the ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ (EES) – an updated way to think about evolutionary biology aimed at tackling some of its toughest problems. The EES does not replace traditional thinking, but deployed alongside it, aims to stimulate new research within evolutionary biology.

Within the EES, a number of complex biological phenomena are recognised not merely as products of evolution, but as playing a key role in shaping the direction and rate of evolution. For example, in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), the evolution of developmental organisation changes the variation that selection can act on; and in evolutionary ecology (evo-eco), the evolution of ecological organisation changes the selective pressures that act on that variation. Our researchers are leading projects to expand our understanding of both these evolutionary feedbacks using theoretical tools from computer science.

Contacts: Dr Richard Watson


Dr Mark Chapman
Examining the phenotypes of plants in different growth environments

Using domestication as a model for adaptive divergence and speciation

Our researchers are studying the domestication of turnips, cabbages and other Brassica crops to give new insights into different types of plasticity and how they drive evolutionary divergence.

Phenotypic plasticity is a term used to describe how individuals within a species change in response to different environment conditions to optimise their chances of survival. Over evolutionary time, a modified trait, such as leaf size or antenna length, might help a plant or animal survive, colonise and thrive in a new environment. This could give rise to a new population or even a new species. However, in some cases a population in a novel environment might develop a worse phenotype and either not survive or have to evolve to persist. While we can estimate how plasticity aids in the exploitation of new environments and the exploration of new phenotypes, both of which can provoke the emergence of new species, we lack good data on how common these different pathways are when populations diverge and new species form.

Our study compares turnips, cabbages and other domesticated Brassica crops with their closest wild relatives. Previous research has shown that wild turnips look different when grown in crowded and uncrowded conditions; the wild turnip develops larger roots in the uncrowded environment (increasing resemblance to a domesticated turnip). At the same time, gene expression of the wild plants, when grown in cultivated conditions, resemble the cultivated plant more closely than when grown in wild conditions. This suggests that plasticity of the wild relative may have been important in the origin of the domesticated species, "pushing it" in the right direction for humans to select. By analysing several Brassica crops and their wild relatives we can see if the same changes happen in the different species, giving us new understanding on how evolution works, and how important the different types of plasticity are in driving evolutionary divergence.

Contact: Dr Mark Chapman


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