Microbial experimental evolution is a powerful approach where populations of microbes are grown in the lab for hundreds, or even thousands, of generations so that we can see first-hand how populations evolve in changing environments. Our experiments build basic evolutionary theory so that we can understand the rules that evolution plays by. Classical evolutionary theory makes many simplifying assumptions about both environments and organisms. While these simplifying assumptions are sometimes fine, they often aren’t, so we spend our time breaking them one by one.

Why? It’s not as if we just like breaking things (even though the odd flask does get dropped).  First off, it’s extremely interesting and we can’t help ourselves. Second, we’re interested in understanding how all the kazillions of photosynthetic microbes in the ocean, the ones that do half the photosynthesis on the planet and are the foundation of marine food webs, are going to evolve as the ocean changes in the coming decades. We make and test-drive the theory, and then collaborate with oceanographers to make sure it gets used. 

Specific topics that we’re working on right now include: 

Antarctic plankton in a changing ocean


Follow our research cruise Dec 19, 2016- Jan 23, 2017

On this Antarctic cruise, we’ll study how plankton adapt to new environments, particularly those driven by climate change. We’ll measure the genetic diversity of diatoms (a planktonic algae with key roles in marine food webs and biogeochemical cycles) and examine how diatoms respond to changes in water temperature and ocean acidification. This cruise is the first step in a 4 year collaborative project between oceanographers and evolutionary biologists.

In vitro evolution system (Oli)

Meet Oli.

Oli is a DNA hairpin of about 120 base pairs, and is intended to be used for experimental evolution. Oli is more complex than most in-silico organisms, yet much simpler than a virus. You can get the sequence from the manuscript, and synthesize Oli yourself, and then do all sorts of cool experimental evolution, providing you have access to a RT PCR machine and have or are willing to develop awesome pipetting skillz. 

Read more: In vitro evolution system (Oli)

Applying Experimental Evolution to Oceanography


At some point, we need to make sure that any insights gained in our lab are shared with, and ideally used by, oceanographers. This involves a lot of conversations and collaborations, where we share our expertise in evolutionary biology, and learn a lot about marine biology. Have a look at our collaborators, and you’ll see!

Read more: Applying Experimental Evolution to Oceanography

Model Systems for Experimental Evolution


Depending on whether a project is meant to develop evolutionary theory, test it, or tell us something about marine phytoplankton, different model systems are used in the lab.

Read more: Model Systems for Experimental Evolution



How does non-genetic change affect evolutionary responses? Can short-term epigenetic responses tell us anything about the genetic changes that are likely to occur during evolution? 

Read more: Epigenetics

Phenotypic Plasticity



How does the ability to deal with environmental change through phenotypic plasticity (no genetic change) affect the chances that a population evolves (changes genetically over time)? Can we use plastic responses to predict evolutionary ones?

Complex Environmental Change


How do populations evolve when many aspects of the environment change at once? How is this different from evolving in response to a single aspect of the environment changing? Global change in the ocean is going to involve changes in carbon, pH, temperature, salinity, mixing… and that’s not even counting the changes in the critters themselves! 

Evolutionary responses to high CO2

giantchlamy(Sinead and Heidi)

We are interested in pinning down the genetic and physiological changes that underpin adaptation to elevated CO2 in photosynthetic microbes. Right now, we are using the freshwater model Chlamydomonas to map genetic changes in several replicate populations evolved under high CO2