Year Book Contributions


  • Microbial interactions within the leaf of a wheat plant

    2022 Stukenbrock, Eva H.
    Plants are colonized by diverse microbial communities. Some of the microbial species produce antifungal compounds that inhibit the growth of fungal and other pathogens. Likewise, fungal pathogens can produce antibacterial compounds to manipulate the plant microbiota.


  • Ancient Darwinian replicators nested within bacterial genomes

    2021 Bertels, Frederic; Rainey, Paul
    Self-replicating sequences are not unusual in genomes, they make up more than 50% of the human genome. Usually, such sequences are molecular parasites that do not benefit the host. However, we have identified populations of self-replicating sequences that provide a benefit to their bacterial hosts. The evolution of these sequences is fascinating, not only because one generation in these populations lasts thousands of years, but also because evolutionary conflicts, reminiscent of those between organisms and cells, can be observed between the sequence populations and their bacterial hosts.


  • Population genetic models for the evolution of antibiotic resistance

    2020 Uecker, Hildegard; Santer, Mario
    How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Often, extra-DNA, so-called plasmids, that bacteria carry in addition to their chromosomes plays an important role. At cell division, the plasmids are passed on to the daughter cells, however not neatly, but with some randomness. Stochastic models can elegantly describe this process over many generations, contributing to a clear picture of the dynamics of plasmid-encoded genes, for example resistance genes. This knowledge is the basis for influencing the evolution of bacterial populations and preventing the emergence of resistance.


  • Mathematical models for life cycles of simple organisms

    2019 Traulsen, Arne; Pichugin, Yuriy
    Even among simply structured organisms a fascinating variety of cellular communities from chain-forming bacteria to the formation and coordinated dissolution of large colonies can be found. Where does this diversity come from? And are there any fundamental rules for this diversity? General statements actually can be made applying mathematical models: Even without detailed knowledge about the biology of living organisms, one can understand which life cycles are theoretically feasible, and thus identify the conditions for the emergence of simple life cycles.


  • Exploring the limits of evolutionary forecasting

    2018 Rainey, Paul B.
    Molecular biology can be repeated in the laboratory and in wild populations. This could mean that evolution might follow rules. Work with experimental bacterial populations suggests the genotype-to-phenotype map to be an important central contributor. Recent work using mathematical models and experimental evolution shows that short-term mechanistic-level predictions of mutational pathways to new adaptive phenotypes can be made. Future challenges stem from the current inability to a priori predict locus-specific mutational biases and environment-specific fitness effects.


  • Evolution of genes from random sequences

    2017 Tautz, Diethard
    How can new genes evolve? It was long thought that this happens only through duplication and recombination of existing genes. An experimental evolution approach now shows that a large fraction of randomly composed protein sequences can positively or negatively influence the growth of cells. These results indicate how new genes can also arise out of non-coding sequences of the genome. Concurrently, this opens a practically unlimited source of new bioactive molecules for pharmacological and biotechnological applications.


  • Migration genetics – how do migratory birds find their way?

    2016 Liedvogel, Miriam
    One characteristic of bird migration is its variability, both within and among species. Particularly fascinating are young birds on their first migratory journey covering thousands of kilometers that often span continents. These tiny birds travel to wintering areas they have never been before - without the guidance of their parents, but with amazing accuracy. How do they do this? From selection experiments we know that variation in migratory behaviour is largely due to genetic differences, but the number and identity of genes involved in controlling migratory traits remains elusive.


  • Models of genome evolution and the origin of species

    2015 Dutheil, Julien Y.
    Modeling the evolution of full genomes in populations is a methodological challenge because of the large number of recombination and mutation events to be accounted for. For that purpose, new models have been developed that introduced simplifications to the standard coalescent theory. When applied to closely related species, these models have shed new light on the speciation process that led to our own species, some 6 Million years ago. In order to be applied to a broader range of organisms, current models need to integrate complex demographic scenarios with heterogenous genomic landscapes.


  • Computing phylogenies from genomes

    2014 Haubold, Bernhard
    Computing phylogenies is one of the most popular applications in bioinformatics. For this purpose evolutionary distances are estimated between nucleotide or amino acid sequences and the phylogeny is reconstructed from these distances. However, estimating distances between long sequences is time consuming. Hence an ultrafast method for calculating distances between genomes has been developed.


  • Hybridization as an evolutionary motor

    2013 Nolte, Arne W.
    Hybrids have fascinated biologist for a long time. The possible role that such individuals of mixed origin may play for evolutionary processes is increasingly considered. Much like crosses that are employed by animal and plant breeders to generate new varieties, natural hybrids can harbor novelty that can convey critical fitness advantages in evolutionary processes. By integrating crossing experiments with screens for the emergence of novel traits, scientists at the institute analyze if novel traits in hybrids play a role as adaptations to new environments.


  • When rapid evolution matters

    2012 Becks, Lutz
    Over the last years, evidence has accumulated that evolution can take place much more rapid than previously thought, occurring within a few generations. This finding is not only important for evolutionary biology, but also for ecology because the recognition that evolutionary change can act on ecological timescales makes the two processes ultimately entangled. Scientists at the MPI for Evolutionary Biology combine laboratory studies, analysis of mathematical models and genomic approaches to study the consequences of the interaction of ecological and evolutionary change on one time scale.


  • How and why did a simple yeast evolve a complex life cycle?

    2011 Greig, Duncan
    The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae has long been domesticated by humans. It is an ideal organism for evolution experiments. It can grow rapidly to large population sizes, it has an interesting life cycle which includes both sexual and asexual stages, and it is extremely well understood as a laboratory model organism. But very little is known about its natural life. By studying S. paradoxus, a wild relative of S. cerevisiae, both in its natural environment and in the laboratory, we can understand more about how and why features of the life cycle such as sporulation, sex, and signalling evolved.


  • Host - microbiota coevolution in the intestine

    2010 Baines, John F.
    Research in a multitude of biomedical disciplines in the last decade has highlighted the importance of the bacterial communities inhabiting our intestinal tract. This is in part due to the rapidly growing field of metagenomics, which enables genetic material to be studied directly from the environment. Although they are most widely known for their role in transfusion medicine and immunology, many blood group antigens are expressed in the intestine and influence resident bacteria. Our current work in this field focuses on the blood-group related glycosyltransferase B4galnt2.


  • Optimization of the immune system by natural and sexual selection

    2009 Lenz, Tobias; Kalbe, Martin
    One of the greatest mysteries in evolutionary biology to date is the widespread occurrence of sexual reproduction. A key role in its evolution and maintenance is assumed for the dynamic co-evolutionary cycles of parasites and their hosts. Using the three-spined stickleback as a model organism in laboratory and field experiments, the importance of parasite-mediated natural but also sexual selection on reproductive success and thus on Darwinian fitness can be investigated. This in turn will help to better understand the widespread evolution of sexual reproduction.


  • Searching for the basis of evolutionary adaptation

    2008 Tautz, Diethard
    Systematic studies to detect the molecular basis of evolutionary adaptations have only recently become possible. Scientists at the MPI for Evolutionary Biology focus on natural populations of the house mouse (Mus musculus). This involves genome based searches for signatures of recent adaptations. The first results indicate that such signatures occur much more often than it was considered possible so far. This opens up the option to devise experiments that will eventually allow to study the evolution of mouse populations in real time.


  • The fastest path of evolution

    2007 Traulsen, Arne
    During the evolution of a population, advantageous mutations are accumulated. This enhances the fitness of the population until all advantageous mutations are fixed. Under which circumstances does this process proceed fastest? A mathematical calculation shows that an exponential increase of fitness is optimal for small mutation rates. For high mutation rates, the process is faster if the fitness increases only in the last step.


  • Diversity and sustainable management of Amazonian floodplain forests

    2006 Schöngart, Jochen; Wittmann, Florian; Junk, Wolfgang J.
    Amazonian floodplain forests are endangered due to their easy accessibility, nutrient-rich soils and richness in natural resources. Information on diversity, dynamics and tree growth in relation to environmental factors is the basis for the development of sustainable management concepts to guarantee their multiple ecological functions and at the same time the supply of natural resources for the local populations.


  • Stable isotopes: new tool for the study of aquatic food webs

    2005 Harrod, Chris; Lampert, Winfried
    Stable isotopes, in particular of nitrogen and carbon, are a new tool to study the structure of food webs in aquatic ecosystems. These isotopes show characteristic enrichment when organic material is passed from one step in the food chain to the next. Moreover, the isotopic composition of organisms provides information on the origin of their resources. Scientists in the Department of Physiological Ecology of the Max Planck Institute for Limnology used this method to show how carbon from methane produced in lake sediments is transferred through bacteria and midge larvae to spiders outside of the water. In another project, they were able to demonstrate that different morphotypes of the same fish species specialize on different habitat and food resources in a lake.


  • Genetically diverse populations resist global warming – experimental studies in seagrass beds

    2004 Reusch, Thorsten
    While there is ample experimental evidence for a role of species diversity in ecosystem performance, the functional significance of genetic diversity is less clear. In fact, many aquatic plant communities are highly productive although they consist of only a few or a single dominant species. In order to shed light on this apparent contradiction, scientists at the MPI of Limnology manipulated the genotypic diversity in the field in the seagrass species Zostera marina. The experiment took place in the Baltic Sea in 2003. During that year, a heat wave caused surface water temperatures to rise above 25°C, leading to widespread heat stress related mortality among shallow water animals and plants. Such conditions may serve as a model for predicted increases in climatic extremes. After the heat wave, genotypically diverse seagrass areas recovered faster, had more shoots and biomass and harboured more associated invertebrates at the end of the experimental period. Positive effects of genotypic diversity were due to true biodiversity effects (complementarity) and not due to the dominance of particularly resistant genotypes. These results provide experimental evidence that not only species diversity but also genetic diversity should be preserved. Genotypic diversity had a similar function as species diversity. This way, the level of genetic diversity can be incorporated into existing ecological theory on biodiversity at the level of species.


  • Reputation both pays off and solves social dilemmas

    2003 Milinski, Manfred
    Many problems of the human society, such as overexploiting fish stock or the difficulty of sustaining the global climate, are problems of achieving cooperation. When individuals, groups or states are free to overuse a public good they usually overuse it. Thus, public goods are at risk to collapse, which happens to health insurance systems, fish stock and probably the global climate. This problem that is known as the "tragedy of the commons" [1], has been studied intensively by social- and political scientists and economists since decades and recently by evolutionary biologists. Except for allowing for punishing defectors [2], no scenario that facilitates a cooperative solution of the tragedy of the commons has been found yet. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Limnology could show that an unexpectedly efficient solution of the problem can be achieved when personal reputation, which is important for other social interactions, is at stake in the public goods situation. When this interaction is allowed for, the public good is not only sustained but also provides all participants with a high payoff [3].
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