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New research institute GELIFES focuses on adaptive capacity of living systems

22 April 2015
The Linnaeusborg, the university's centre for life sciences

Today, on Wednesday on 22 April the op ening symposium will mark the start of the new research institute GELIFES. The Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences is a new centre that merges the ecological, evolutionary and neurosciences research groups of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. They will now join together to study the interaction between evolutionary adaptation and changes during the development or ageing of organisms, and the impact this has on nature, food production and health.

‘Adaptation is a key characteristic of all living systems’, explains scientific director and professor of behavioural biology, Ton Groothuis. All life developed through evolution, whereby the individuals with the capacity to adapt survived. This basic principle led researchers to look more closely at the characteristics that do not appear to have adapted. ‘Diseases are often the result of a mismatch between the conditions to which an organism has adapted and the current living environment,’ continues Groothuis.

Gelifes header

Looking for a solution

People, for example, evolved in conditions marked by an erratic food supply. As a result, they had to make huge physical efforts to find food. The current excesses in the Western world and our sedentary lifestyle are now causing an epidemic of obesity. ‘You can only look for a solution once you know why evolution programmed us the way it did.’

Learning from natural diversity

Research at GELIFES focuses on adaptation in a wide range of organisms, often under semi-natural conditions. ‘We prefer not to use domesticated animals, as most domesticated animals no longer display normally adapted behaviour.’ The researchers keep wild guinea-pigs, seagulls and hens in spacious outdoor pens. ‘Nature has ensured that each of them has adapted genetically in order to survive. We can learn a lot from this natural diversity.’ Ageing is a good example – which adaptations play a role? Groothuis: ‘We know that different species have found different ways of adapting to ageing. This gives new insight into the underlying mechanisms.’

The researchers also have more ‘traditional’ animal cages housing laboratory mice and rats. ‘We use them for in-depth studies of physiological and neurobiological mechanisms. The combination of all these facilities and the fact that we have integrated evolution with physiology and neurobiology makes GELIFES unique within Europe, and possibly in the world’, says Groothuis.

Faster form

In addition to evolutionary adaptation, there is also an even faster form of adaptation, which makes use of the plasticity of organisms. The way that mothers can prepare their offspring for the conditions that await them before birth, via hormones for instance, would be a good example. To understand this, you must first understand the ecological conditions in which the organism lives. These days, human intervention can cause rapid changes in the conditions, such as climate change. The main question is whether organisms have the capacity to cope with the stress that this causes. ‘This type of ecological knowledge is used to devise targeted strategies for nature conservation and sustainable food production, which is why our fieldwork is so important’, says Groothuis.

Largest institute

The new institute is the largest in the Faculty, with 45 researchers, 47 support staff and more than 120 PhD students and postdocs. The staff and students come from the research institute for ecological and evolutionary studies (CEES) and the centre for behavioural and neurobiological research (CBN). The University of Groningen and the Faculty will invest €10.5 million in the institute over the next five years. This also includes competence centres, in which the institute will work with partners from industry and society.

University of Groningen invests € 35 million in teaching and research

The University of Groningen is investing € 35 million in teaching and research. The money will mainly be directed at developing Master’s degree programmes. Last June, all faculties of the University of Groningen had the opportunity to apply for funding by submitting ideas or projects to the Board of the University. The condition was that the proposals should improve teaching and research at the University. Of the 53 plans submitted, 28 have been provisionally approved by the Board of the University. They dovetail with our societal themes Healthy Ageing, Energy and Sustainable Society. Projects in Agro & Food and Engineering can also count on receiving funds.

More information

Prof. Ton Groothuis, a.g.g.groothuis@rug.nl , +31 ( 0)50 363 8357/2340

More information about the opening symposium is available on the website.
Last modified:11 January 2018 4.00 p.m.
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