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Theoretical Biology

G. Sander van Doorn


Contact info

Room: Linnaeusborg, 5172.0576

Phone: +31 (0)50 363 8097


Researcher ID

Systems biology meets evolutionary theory…

The molecular blueprint of humans and several other organisms has been resolved at an incredible level of detail, yet it is still difficult for biologists to relate their knowledge of molecular mechanisms to the everyday observable characteristics of organisms. One way to confront this challenge is to integrate the available data on molecular components (genes, proteins, etc.) into a computational model, and to reconstruct the complex mapping between genotype and phenotype in this way. Such systems-biology models, however, tend to become so complicated that they resist further conceptual analysis.

To solve this problem, I attempt to balance systems-level modelling and reductionism by complementing computational approaches with ideas from evolutionary biology. After all, the complex molecular interaction networks in living cells are products of evolution. If we succeed in understanding how selection has shaped molecular mechanisms, we may perhaps be able to reduce significantly the complexity of systems-biology models. Specifically, it will be easier to concentrate on those aspects of molecular networks that are relevant to their biological function.

Figure 1 – Changing perspectives on evolution. (A) Traditional evolutionary theory pictures adaptation as a process at two levels: at one, phenotypic variation changes under influence of selection (b); at the other, the associated genetic changes are restructured as genes are transmitted to the next generation (d). Most theory and applications assume a simple mapping between genotype and phenotype (arrows a and c), such that phenotypic adaptation proceeds in close correspondence with genetic change (grey block arrows). (B) The modern molecular life sciences emphasize that both genotype and phenotype space are high-dimensional and connected by development, a complex non-linear mapping that obscures the connection between phenotypic and molecular patterns of evolution. My research approaches the genotype-phenotype problem at multiple levels: clarifying how molecular networks evolve (objective 1) is a key goal, as well investigating the dynamics of phenotypic adaptation (objective 3). Finally, I am interested in the properties of the genotype-phenotype map itself (objective 2).[Modified from Lewontin (1974) The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change].

With its emphasis on simple 'black-box' models of development, mainstream evolutionary theory is ill-equipped to explain how molecular mechanisms evolve (Figure 1). My research therefore combines classical techniques from evolutionary theory (multi-locus population genetics, invasion analysis, game theory and adaptive dynamics) with methods for the analysis of complex adaptive systems such as network theory, fitness-landscape analysis and individual-based simulation. I work on the following model systems:

  • The evolution of the bacterial chemotaxis network
  • The emergence of cross-feeding polymorphisms in populations of E. coli bacteria
  • Cell differentiation in biofilms of Bacillus subtilis

In addition, I develop general theory to investigate the evolution of genetic architecture and the role of recombination in evolutionary innovations. My research relies on local and international collaborations with Jordi van Gestel, Matthias Heinemann, Alex Ivanov, Oscar Kuipers, Mark Kirkpatrick (University of Texas, USA) and Barbara Taborsky (University of Bern, Switzerland). I am financially supported by an ERC Starting Independent Researcher’s Grant and an NWO Vidi Grant.

Vacancies/research opportunities
I am looking for motivated MSc students to join my team. If you want to learn more about the opportunities for research projects in evolutionary systems biology, please contact me via email or come by at Linnaeusborg, room 5172.0576.
Current projects:

Other Research Interests

My roots lie in Theoretical Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics. As a theoretician, I am not constrained by the limitations of working with a specific model system, which has given me the opportunity to work a range of topics (Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Key words from the abstracts of my papers in theoretical evolutionary ecology.

Here is a list of the main themes of my work, with keywords and selected papers on each topic (click here for a complete publication list):


Speciation with gene flow, magic traits, adaptive speciation, speciation by sexual selection, frequency-dependent selection

M.R. Servedio, G.S. van Doorn, M. Kopp, A.M. Frame & P. Nosil (2011): Magic traits in speciation: 'magic' but not rare? Trends Ecol. Evol. 26, 389–397. pdf

G.S. van Doorn, P. Edelaar & F.J. Weissing (2009): On the origin of species by natural and sexual selection Science 326, 1704-1707. pdf, supplement, perspectives, Science podcast

G.S. van Doorn & U. Dieckmann (2006): The long-term evolution of multi-locus traits under frequency-dependent disruptive selection. Evolution 60, 2226–2238. pdf

G.S. van Doorn, U. Dieckmann & F.J. Weissing (2004): Sympatric speciation by sexual selection: a critical re-evaluation. Am. Nat. 163, 709-725. pdf

G.S. van Doorn & F.J. Weissing (2001): Ecological versus sexual selection models of sympatric speciation. Selection 2, 17-40. pdf

Download my PhD thesis pdf

Collaborators: Ulf Dieckmann, Michael Kopp, Martine Maan, Patrik Nosil, Maria Servedio, Thor Veen.

Sexual selection

Mate choice, multiple ornaments, good-genes sexual selection

M.R. Robinson, G.S. van Doorn, L. Gustafsson & A. Qvarnström (2012): Environment-dependent selection on mate choice in a natural population of birds. Ecol. Lett. 15, 611-618. pdf

G.S. van Doorn & F.J. Weissing (2006): Sexual conflict and the evolution of female preferences for indicators of male quality. Am. Nat. 168, 742-757. pdf

G.S. van Doorn & F.J. Weissing (2004): The evolution of female preferences for multiple indicators of quality. Am. Nat. 164, 173-186 pdf

Collaborators: Anna Qvarnström, , Matt Robinson.

Sexual conflict and sex-chromosome evolution

Intralocus sexual conflict, genetic sex-determination mechanisms, neo-Y chromosome, heterogamety transitions

G.S. van Doorn & M. Kirkpatrick (2010): Transitions between male and female heterogamety caused by sex-antagonistic selection. Genetics 186, 629–645. pdf

G.S. van Doorn (2009): Intralocus sexual conflict, in: The Year in Evolutionary Biology, Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1168, 52–71. pdf

G.S. van Doorn & M. Kirkpatrick (2007): Turnover of sex chromosomes induced by sexual conflict Nature 449, 909-912. pdf, supplement

Collaborators: Mark Kirkpatrick.

Behavioural syndromes

Animal personality, boldness-aggressiveness syndrome, responsiveness, life-history variation

M. Wolf, G.S. van Doorn & F.J. Weissing (2011): On the coevolution of social responsiveness and behavioural consistency. Proc. R. Soc. B 278, 440-448. pdf, supplement

M. Wolf, G.S. van Doorn & F.J. Weissing (2008): Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105, 15825-15830. pdf, supplement

M. Wolf, G.S. van Doorn, O. Leimar & F.J. Weissing (2007): Life-history trade-offs favour the evolution of animal personalities. Nature 447, 581-584 pdf, supplement, news & views

Collaborators: Olof Leimar, Max Wolf.

Game theory

Cooperation, winner-/loser effects, generalized reciprocity, games on networks

G.S. van Doorn & M. Taborsky (2012): The evolution of generalized reciprocity on social interaction networks. Evolution 66, 651-664. pdf, supplement

G.S. van Doorn, G.M. Hengeveld & F.J. Weissing (2003): The evolution of social dominance. I. Two-player models. Behaviour 140, 1305-1332. pdf

G.S. van Doorn, G.M. Hengeveld & F.J. Weissing (2003): The evolution of social dominance. II. Multi-player models. Behaviour 140, 1333-1358. pdf

Collaborators: Geerten Hengeveld, Michael Taborsky.

Last modified:October 04, 2013 22:55