The Groningen Institute of Evolutionary Life Sciences (GELIFES) fills a special niche in the field of life sciences that not only covers mechanistic, evolutionary and ecological approaches, but also specifically aims at the integration of these fields that are traditionally studied in isolation, which hampers a full understanding of fundamental biological processes. Evolution on a long time scale has shaped the regulatory mechanisms acting on short time scales that determine the potential and limitations of adaptive capacity. This is relevant for understanding the prevalence and treatment of diseases, including energetic and metabolic diseases, individual differences in aging and health that determine the scope for personalized medicine, as well as the adaptive capacity and maladaptation of organisms in modern commercial farming. In turn, the nature of these mechanisms determines the potential, direction, speed, and limitation of evolutionary change. This is important, e.g. for understanding speciation and changes in biodiversity, predicting effects of global change, and brain adaptations to cope with environmental challenges.
Integrating these approaches has the potential to provide a new foundation for the life sciences. Recent findings, such as adaptation by non-genetic inheritance, evolution taking place on much shorter time scales than previously thought, brain plasticity being much larger than previously assumed, and cascading adaptive responses in species interaction networks, request a much more integrative approach. After the genomics revolution, it is now time for an evolutionary life sciences revolution in which the key adaptive processes from genes to organisms to populations to ecosystems are fully integrated.
The mission of the institute is to provide a better understanding of fundamental biological processes by integrating mechanistic and evolutionary approaches, both in our research, education and public outreach, and to contribute where possible to the solution of societal problems.
Research and expertise
As the ability to adjust to environmental, developmental or physiological changes is a key aspect of living systems, this adaptation is a key issue in our research. Our institute is the driving force of a large program called Adaptive Life, which is a priority area in the Faculty of Science and Engineering and recently received a financial boost by both the university and the faculty. Our research fields cover a wide array of expertise, ranging from neurobiology, physiology, genomics and behaviour to ecology and evolution, from molecular genetics, theoretical modeling and brain analyses to organismal and species interaction studies in semi-natural conditions and in the field. Studying mechanisms within an evolutionary and ecological framework requires the use of a large diversity of model organisms. Therefore we study a wide array of species, from microbes, algae, plants and insects to vertebrates such as fish, birds, rodents, marine mammals and humans.
We have state-of-the-art facilities for housing a wide array of animal species (over 150 aviaries, rodent gardens, aquarium house, etc) as well as a human isolation facility to study the biological clock, and climate chamber and greenhouse facilities that belong to the best in the world. The institute also has a wide array of molecular, sequencing, endocrinological, histological, metabolic and behavioural labs and owns a confocal microscope. Our outdoor facilities include experimental gardens, the field station “The Herdershut” on the Wadden Island of Schiermonnikoog (35 beds, a lecture room and a basic laboratory), the field station at the “Vosbergen” estate close to Groningen (small lecture room and basic lab), and permanent facilities (equipment, vehicles, etc.) at field stations in the Serengeti, Tanzania and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, South Africa and at the Seychelles, Indian Ocean.
We teach at all levels of the curriculum in the life sciences, based on our unique framework as described above. We coordinate the majors in Brain and Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution, Marine Biology and Medical Biology. We coordinate the selective interdisciplinary research master Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience, and the top programme Evolutionary Biology that is also offered as an Erasmus Mundus Program (MEME). At the PhD level, the institute participates in the interfaculty Research School for Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences (BCN) and coordinates the Research School Ecology and Evolution (RSEE).
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