Experimental evolution with roundworm wins prestigious European grant

October 19, 2009

At the last count, the number of classified species on Earth stands at around two million - a number that may go up to anything between five to 30 million, according to current estimates. Core to this enormous biological diversity is the ability of living organisms to adapt to new environments. Henrique Teotónio, group leader at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, in Portugal, has just been awarded around 1.8 million euro in one of this year's 240 prestigious European Research Council Awards (out of 2503 applications, from 34 countries), for his proposal to unravel the genetic details underlying the adaptation and evolution of diversity - a crucial missing piece in the 150 year old theory of adaptation and natural selection, first proposed by Charles Darwin.

This is the second ERC Starting grant awarded to IGC scientists. Earlier this year, Rui Costa, group leader at the IGC within the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme, received a grant of 1.6 million euros, for research in the field of neurobiology.

The five-year grant will allow Henrique Teotónio and his team to set up a large evolution experiment, using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). In Teotónio's own words, 'We will be working with around 90 different populations of worms, breeding them in different environments and under different sexual systems, looking at their phenotypes (e.g. male fertility, body size, learning ability, robustness to change) and then relating phenotypes to the underlying genetic structure and changes that accompany adaptation. Altogether, we expect to measure over 10 000 phenotypes and analyse around a million genotypes (the genetic constitution of a cell).'

The research team has already carried out much of the groundwork needed for this unprecedented experiment. According to Teotónio, 'To our knowledge, the system we have set up at the IGC is unique and no other laboratory in the world is carrying out experimental evolution with the same quality of biological material (i.e. C. elegans populations), or with the level of integration of approaches that we are using. We expect, therefore, to provide findings that will have a strong impact in the field of evolutionary biology, and in understanding biodiversity'.

Now in it's second edition, the ERC Starting Grants aim to support early career independent researchers (with three to eight years' research experience since completion of their PhD), with a promising scientific track record and proposing to carry out an ambitious and ground-breaking research proposal.

For António Coutinho, director of the IGC, 'Amongst the several European programmes for science and technology, ERC awards are the first to distinguish individual researchers, primarily selected on the basis of scientific excellence, in any area of research. Both these prestigious grants acknowledge that the IGC is taking on a world-leading position, both within the scientific community, and with international funding agencies'. 

Henrique Teotónio, 37 years old, graduated in Biology from the University of Lisbon. After completing his PhD at the University of California - Irvine, USA, he carried out post-doctoral research at Cambridge University, United Kingdon, Princeton University, USA and University of Oregon, Eugene, USA. In 2003, Henrique decided to return to Portugal, where he is Principal Investigator at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência.

Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia

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